In 44 states and the District of Columbia, the age at which young offenders age out of the juvenile justice system is now 18. In five states, it is 17. That leaves North Carolina as the only state that still treats all 16- and 17-year-olds as adults for criminal justice purposes, but fortunately not for long.
Tucked away in the 438-page budget bill that the General Assembly passed this week is the “Juvenile Justice Reinvestment Act,” which raises the age of juvenile jurisdiction to include all 16- and 17-year-olds except for those accused of the most serious and violent felonies. This change is something the John Locke Foundation has supported for many years (see, e.g., here, here, here, here, and here), and we are delighted that it has finally been enacted into law.
Much of the credit for this happy outcome should go to Chief Justice Mark Martin and the NC Commission on the Administration of Law and Justice that he convened in 2015. Among the NCCALJ’s many achievements was a detailed analysis of the costs and benefits of raising the age that was prepared by its Criminal Investigation and Adjudication Committee and published as an appendix to its final report.
Drawing on research by the John Locke Foundation and many others, the NCCALJ found that charging, convicting, and punishing 16- and 17-year-olds as adults subjects them to unacceptably high levels of physical and sexual abuse, provides them with inadequate access to educational and other age-specific programming, and burdens them with criminal records that put them at a disadvantage compared to similar young offenders in other states and make it difficult for them to become law-abiding, productive citizens. It also found, and that, compared to adult jurisdiction, “Rehabilitation of juveniles is more effectively obtained in juvenile justice systems and juvenile facilities, as measured by recidivism rates.” Taking all these factors into consideration, the Committee concluded that—by lowering the rate of crime and the cost of law enforcement and by improving the productivity of rehabilitated young offenders—raising the age of juvenile jurisdiction would yield a net benefit to the state of over $50 million per year, and it, therefore, recommended that:
(Note: The offenses in felony classes A-E constitute the most serious and the most violent crimes. Given that less than 3 percent of 16- and 17-year-old offenders are charged with such offenses, this was deemed to strike the right balance between maximizing the benefits of lower recidivism rates on the one hand, and adequately punishing and incapacitating dangerous criminals on the other.)
The Juvenile Justice Reinvestment Act that was passed as part of the budget bill last week follows the NCCALJ’s recommendations very closely, including the NCCALJ’s insistence on adequate funding. Legislative leaders worked closely with the Department of Public Safety and the Administrative Office of the Courts to ensure that the expanded juvenile justice programs that will be necessary to implement the legislation will be properly funded.
One way in which the legislation does differ from the NCCALJ’s recommendation is that it expands the exception for serious crimes to include, not just A-E felonies, but F and G felonies as well. Because very few juvenile offenders are charged with F and G felonies, however, this is only a minor tweak to what is, overall, an excellent and badly-needed reform.
Raising the age of juvenile jurisdiction to include 16- and 17-year-olds will bring North Carolina’s juvenile justice system in line with the rest of the country. More importantly, it will yield substantial benefits in the coming years, not only for young people accused of crimes, for all North Carolinians.