Last June, the N.C. General Assembly passed the Juvenile Justice Reinvestment Act which raised the age of juvenile jurisdiction in North Carolina to include 16- and 17-year-olds. As I reported at the time, the legislature’s decision to raise the age was not undertaken lightly. It was supported by a long and thorough report prepared by the NC Commission on the Administration of Law and Justice that had been convened by Chief Justice Mark Martin in 2015:
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 that, compared to adult jurisdiction, “Rehabilitation of juveniles is more effectively obtained in juvenile justice systems and juvenile facilities, as measured by recidivism rates.”
In addition to raising the age, the Juvenile Justice Reinvestment Act created the Juvenile Jurisdiction Advisory Committee. The committee is made up of 21 members: the Deputy Commissioner for Juvenile Justice of the Department of Public Safety; the Director of the Administrative Office of the Courts; the Director of the Division of Mental Health, Developmental Disabilities, and Substance Abuse Services of the DHHS; the Superintendent of Public Instruction; the Juvenile Defender in the Office of Indigent Defense; the Executive Director of the North Carolina Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission; a representative of Governor’s Crime Commission; two chief court counselors; one chief district court judge and one superior court judge; a clerk of superior court; two district attorneys; an assistant public defender; and representatives of the juvenile advocacy and the victim advocacy communities. The committee’s job is to:
Develop a specific plan for the implementation of any changes in the juvenile justice system that would be required in order to extend jurisdiction in delinquency matters and proceedings to include 16‑ and 17‑year‑old persons within the juvenile justice system. The plan shall include cost estimates for each portion of the plan, including capital costs, operating costs, and staffing costs.
In fulfillment of its duty, in March the JJAC submitted a report with funding recommendations for fiscal year 2018-19. These included $14 million for the Department of Public Safety (including $7.2 million for the completion of a new juvenile detention facility in Rockingham County and $1.9 million for juvenile court counselors), as well as money to pay for additional staff for the Office of the Juvenile Defender and the Administrative Office of the Courts.
Having gone to such trouble to assemble a committee of experts and obtain their funding recommendations, one might have expected the General Assembly to follow those recommendations, but that’s not what’s happened. The recently announced N.C. House and Senate budget agreement provides funding for what are, arguably, the most important elements of implementation, i.e., the new juvenile detention facility in Rockingham County and the additional juvenile court counselors. Unfortunately, however, it does not fund any of the JJAC’s other recommendations.
Budgeting always involves tradeoffs, and sometimes hard choices must be made. Nevertheless, the failure to fully fund the implementation of the Juvenile Justice Reinvestment Act is disappointing. Cost-benefit analysis has repeatedly shown that fighting crime is one of the most cost-effective uses of tax revenue, and that deterrence is one of the most cost-effective ways to fight crime. Raising the age of juvenile jurisdiction is a case in point.
The NCCALJ report that persuaded the General Assembly to raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction cited a 2011 cost-benefit analysis commissioned by the Governor’s Crime Commission that compared the costs of raising the age in the form of expanded systems for youth detention, supervision, and other programs, with the benefits in the form of lower crime rates, lower law enforcement costs, and higher lifetime earnings by rehabilitated young offenders. It found a net economic benefit to North Carolina of $52.3 million per year. The report also emphasized many hard-to-quantify benefits that were not included in the study, including lower rates of physical and sexual abuse for young offenders, and greater peace of mind for all North Carolinians due to lower crime rates.
Compared to many of the benefits that are supposed to flow from the expenditure of public funds, the benefits that will flow from successful implantation of the Juvenile Justice Reinvestment Act will be real and tangible, and they will be enjoyed by everyone who lives in North Carolina. When it comes to spending public money, securing such benefits ought to be a priority.