North Carolina is no longer the only state in the U.S. to automatically prosecute juveniles, ages 16 and 17, as adults. Last June, the General Assembly ended a century-long practice of prosecuting teens as adults by enacting the Juvenile Justice Reinvestment Act (JJRA) as part of the state budget. The bill raises the age of criminal responsibility to 18—most 16 and 17-year-olds will be prosecuted in juvenile court beginning December 1, 2019.
The “Raise the Age” bill will allow a 16- or 17-year-old who commits certain crimes to be tried as a juvenile—not as an adult. Once in effect, all offenses committed by teens of these ages will originate in juvenile court. However, for Class A-G felonies committed by 16 and 17-year-olds, transfer to superior court will be mandatory with either a notice of an indictment or a finding of probable cause by the court. By requiring all juvenile offenses begin in juvenile court, the new legislation gives prosecutors some discretion to retain mandatory transfer cases in juvenile court by reducing the charges based upon further investigation or discovery that occurs prior to the filing of an indictment or a probable cause hearing.
The ACLU praised the bipartisan vote behind what it called a commonsense measure. “North Carolina’s century-old policy of sending 16- and 17-year-olds to adult jails and branding them with lifelong criminal records has been a blight on our state and done nothing to make our communities safer,” commented ACLU lawyer Susanna Birdsong. “It’s long past time for young offenders in North Carolina to have the same opportunities as those in the rest of the country to turn their lives around through the juvenile justice system.”
Improving Lives and Budgets
The JJRA requires North Carolina to make upfront investments. It’s more expensive to move young people through the juvenile criminal justice than the adult system, and the state is now building a $13.2 million Youth Development Center in Rockingham County to account for the expected influx of 16- and 17-year-olds.
But in the end, the law is expected to have significant economic benefits. Jordan Wilkie with The Institute for Southern Studies writes that it will bring an estimated 12% reduction in recidivism for teens sent to the juvenile rather than adult system—that will mean lower long-term costs for law enforcement, courts, incarceration, and victim services.
Salvaging a Future
If you’re not even old enough to vote or buy a drink, should you be forced to deal with adult consequences for a stupid mistake? A prison sentence at such a young age can lead to psychological issues and actually increase the risk of recidivism. Teens face extreme dangers when locked up with adults—they are five times more likely to be sexually assaulted than those in juvenile facilities and they are 36 times more likely to commit suicide. Rates of physical assault are also higher for juveniles held with adults.
Plus, the teenager now has a conviction that will haunt him or her for a lifetime—a conviction that can result in a loss of job opportunities and bank loans. As long as the teen’s charges are for a non-violent offense, he or she can now stay in the juvenile system and focus on rehabilitation rather than punishment.
Let’s face it: Young people make mistakes; from experimenting with drugs to deciding to drive after having a drink, as well as other traffic violations. North Carolina will now be able to avoid such negative outcomes through this change in the way courts approach juvenile offenses.
Greene Wilson Crow & Smith understands that children are not in a position to effectively articulate their needs, face an intimidating juvenile justice system, or create strategic solutions to their problems—legal or otherwise. Let us help you navigate the sometimes-confusing juvenile legal process. For more information or to schedule a consultation, please contact Greene Wilson Crow & Smith by calling (252) 634-9400 or visiting nctriallawyers.com.
(Sources: UNC School of Government; The News & Observer; The Charlotte Observer; The Institute for Southern Studies; North Carolina Department of Public Safety; and Purdue University.)