May 16, 2017

RALEIGH — North Carolina would reap the greatest rewards from Raise the Age legislation if lawmakers include nonviolent felonies along with misdemeanors in their plans. That’s a key conclusion in a new John Locke Foundation Spotlight report.

“Raising the age of juvenile jurisdiction is the right thing to do, and raising the age to include all 16- and 17-year-olds except for those accused of the most serious felonies is the right way to do it,” said report author Jon Guze, JLF Director of Legal Studies.

Raise the Age refers to a plan to change the age when young offenders age out of the state’s juvenile justice system. North Carolina is the only state in the country that treats all 16- and 17-year-olds as adults for criminal justice purposes. “Raising the age of juvenile jurisdiction to include 16- and 17-year-olds would bring our criminal justice system into line with the rest of the country,” Guze said. “It’s a sensible, long overdue reform.

Competing proposals in the General Assembly would raise the age in different ways. House Bill 280 and the similar Senate Bill 564 would shift most 16- and 17-year-old offenders to the juvenile system. Only those charged with the so-called “violent felonies,” grouped in categories lettered A through E, would continue to be treated as adults. A vote on H.B. 280 is expected this week.

Meanwhile, Senate Bill 549 distinguishes between felonies and misdemeanors. Any 16- or 17-year-old charged with a felony, including the “nonviolent” felonies in categories lettered F through I, would be treated as an adult. Teens charged with misdemeanor offenses would be treated as juveniles.

The Senate’s budget mirrors S.B. 549. It shifts misdemeanor offenses by 16- and 17-year-olds to the juvenile justice system while continuing to address all felonies in adult court.

“It is gratifying to see so much support for the raising the age, and it is encouraging to see so much agreement about the details of how best to do it,” Guze said. “All proponents appear to agree that the age of juvenile jurisdiction should be raised for misdemeanors. They also appear to agree that it should not be raised for A-E felonies.”

The main issue to be resolved involves treatment of largely nonviolent F-I felonies, Guze said. “How the General Assembly resolves this issue will determine the extent to which North Carolina maximizes the benefits of raising the age.”

The answer is clear, according to Guze’s report. “While raising the age for misdemeanors only would be a good start, raising it for all offenses except for A-E felonies would be significantly better,” he said. “Continued adult jurisdiction for 16- and 17-year-olds who are accused of F-I felonies would substantially reduce benefits tied to the Raise the Age initiative.”

“This option also would do little to ensure that these teens are punished adequately or incapacitated effectively,” Guze added. “Moving these F-I offenders to juvenile jurisdiction, on the other hand, would achieve comparable levels of punishment and incapacitation while yielding substantial additional benefits.”

Much of the evidence supporting the Raise the Age initiative comes from a special group appointed by N.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Martin, Guze said. “That group’s detailed, well-researched, well-reasoned report spells out important benefits for North Carolina tied to raising the age.”

The commission’s report finds that teens in adult prisons suffer “excessively high” rates of physical and sexual assault, have inadequate access to education, and suffer the burden of an adult criminal record, Guze said. “The report also finds that, compared to adult jurisdiction, rehabilitation of juveniles is obtained more effectively in juvenile justice systems and juvenile facilities. That’s based on measures of recidivism, meaning the degree to which these teens become repeat criminal offenders.”

Guze’s report suggests North Carolina would lose some economic benefits if nonviolent felony offenses remain in adult courts. “A cost-benefit analysis found that North Carolina should reap a net economic benefit of $52.3 million per year from Raise the Age,” he said. “Significantly, the study assumed that the age of juvenile jurisdiction would be raised for all crimes except A-E felonies. If an exception is made for F-I felonies, the net benefit will be reduced.”

Those nonviolent felonies make up 16 percent of all convictions for 16- and 17-year-olds, Guze said. “If removing F-I felonies from juvenile jurisdiction decreased the annual economic benefit by 16 percent, that would amount to $8 million per year.”

The report also punctures the myth that 16- and 17-year-old nonviolent felony offenders face tougher levels of punishment in the adult court system. “In fact, very few of those who are convicted of F-I felonies as adults are imprisoned at all, and those who are imprisoned typically serve very short terms,” Guze said. “Punishment within the adult and juvenile systems would be comparable for these nonviolent felonies.”

In terms of rehabilitation, the choice between the adult and juvenile systems is very different, Guze said. “In addition to restitution, community service, and supervised day programs, a judge will order a juvenile to undergo mental health and substance abuse treatment, remedial education, family counseling, and other interventions that have been proven to assist with rehabilitation.”

Lawmakers have a chance to take a major step forward for criminal justice reform, Guze said. “Raising the age of juvenile jurisdiction would create clear benefits for North Carolina,” he said. “Including nonviolent F-I felonies in the plan would maximize those benefits.”

Jon Guze’s Spotlight report, “Raise the Age: Bringing North Carolina’s Juvenile Justice System into the 21st Century,” is available at the JLF website. For more information, please contact Guze at (919) 828-3876 or [email protected]. To arrange an interview, contact Mitch Kokai at (919) 306-8736 or [email protected].