For years the John Locke Foundation has advocated raising the age of juvenile jurisdiction in North Carolina. Among our reasons:
Evidence suggesting that adult jurisdiction of minors fails to deter juvenile crime and results in poor rehabilitation of juveniles.
Higher victimization rates amongst minors in adult systems in both sexual and physical violence.
A higher risk of suicide for youths in adult systems.
The fact that minors in adult systems have less access to education and other age-specific programming than those in the juvenile justice system, putting them at a serious disadvantage upon release.
At the time we published our report, North Carolina was already an outlier:
In all other states except New York, the default is that 16 year-olds go into the juvenile justice system.
37 states [set] the maximum juvenile age of jurisdiction at 18 and 11 states at 17.
Unlike New York, North Carolina does not have a reverse waiver provision that allows 16 year-olds to petition the adult court to send them to juvenile court, meaning that North Carolina is the only state where all 16 year-olds end up in an adult court.
Since that time, several states in which the age of juvenile jurisdiction was 17 have “raised the age” to 18. Moreover, according to the Texas Public Policy Foundation two more states are “poised” to do so soon:
Currently, 41 states and the District of Columbia maintain that their juvenile courts have jurisdiction to hear most cases involving 17-year-old offenders—exceptions are usually allowed in cases involving violence or other serious crimes—while in [most] other … states, the upper limit for jurisdiction is sixteen. Bills moving through South Carolina and Louisiana’s legislatures right now would align those states with the policies of the former….
Much of the justification for treating 17-year-olds as juveniles when adjudicating their cases stems from mounting scientific evidence that juveniles respond to rehabilitation efforts far differently than do adults. Research into the human brain in particular has shown that the portion which confers a person’s judgement, inhibition, and self-control—found in the frontal lobe—is also the portion that develops last: not until a person is well into their early to mid-20’s. Because of this, not only are they limited in their ability to exercise restraint and fully understand concepts of right and wrong, they also require different approaches in disciplining them….
The research and data are clear: adult jails are no place for teenagers…. Placing youngsters in adult jails makes them more likely to be victims of rape or assault, and to commit suicide. They are also likely to learn a lot more about leading a life of crime from the hardened criminals. There is a lot of truth in the notion that jails and prisons are graduate schools of crime.
In a report dealing with the Louisiana and South Carolina proposals, the New York Times notes that:
In the peak “tough on crime” years of the 1990s, many states acted to send more young offenders to adult courts. But in the last seven, Illinois and Connecticut increased the age for automatic treatment as adults to 18 from 16, and Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Mississippi raised it to 18 from 17.
The experience in those states has bolstered the case for change, said Vincent Schiraldi, a senior research fellow in criminal justice at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and a former justice official in New York City and Washington, D.C.
While the declining crime rate makes comparisons difficult, evidence suggests that treating 17-year-old offenders as juveniles may reduce public costs over time, he said, because they are less likely to commit future crimes than youths who are punished as adults. Fears that crime would rise or detention facilities would be overwhelmed have proved incorrect.
A recent post at the NC School of Government’s criminal law blog discusses these developments and adds, “The Criminal Investigation & Adjudication Committee of the N.C. Commission on the Administration of Law & Justice is working on a raise the age proposal for North Carolina.” The Commission was convened by NC Chief Justice Mark Martin last year to evaluate the state judicial system and make recommendations. It will report its findings next year. Will it recommend raising the age of juvenile jurisdiction in North Carolina? We’ll have to wait and see.