As I reported in a previous Legal Update, last year Chief Justice Mark Martin convened the North Carolina Commission on the Administration of Law & Justice to evaluate the state’s judicial system and make recommendations. The Commission’s Criminal Investigation & Adjudication Committee recently solicited comments on a draft report entitled, “Juvenile Reinvestment,” and in response I submitted the following statement:

By preparing and publishing this report, the Committee has taken a major step towards achieving a goal that the John Locke Foundation has advocated for many years—raising the age of juvenile jurisdiction in North Carolina.

The report begins by stating:

After careful review and with historic support of all stakeholders, the Committee recommends that North Carolina raise the age of juvenile court jurisdiction to include youthful offenders aged 16 and 17.

In support of this recommendation, the report presents a large body of factual findings. One of the most important of these findings is that recidivism rates are lower when young offenders are dealt with through the juvenile system than when they are prosecuted as adults. As the report explains, this is the primary reason why raising the age is likely to reduce crime, promote public safety, and yield substantial economic benefits.

The report states that the recommendation to raise the age is contingent on adequate funding and on a number of complimentary changes to the juvenile justice system. The Committee is certainly right to insist on adequate funding, and most of the changes to the juvenile justice system that it suggests seem eminently sensible. However, the suggestion that all 16- and 17-year olds who are charged with Class A-E felonies should automatically be transferred to adult jurisdiction may be an exception. These are serious crimes that merit severe punishment. However, precisely because of they are so serious, reducing the rate of recidivism by young offenders who commit such crimes is particularly desirable. The existing statutory provision provides for the automatic transfer of juveniles who are charged with Class A felonies while leaving the decision of whether to transfer juveniles charged with other serious crimes to the discretion of the court. Leaving this provision unchanged may be the best way to achieve an appropriate balance between the goals of providing adequate punishment, incapacitation, and deterrence on the one hand, and the goal of reducing recidivism on the other.

Given that fewer than 3% of young offenders are charged with serious felonies, the preceding discussion of how best to deal with such charges is a minor quibble with what is in every other way a remarkable achievement. By bringing all the relevant stake-holders together in support of this well-researched and well-reasoned proposal for raising the age of juvenile jurisdiction in North Carolina, the Criminal Investigation and Adjudication Committee has performed a valuable public service.

 Many other individuals and groups have also submitted comments. The Commission will have to take them all into consideration before it makes its final recommendation about raising the age, which it is expected to do early next year.