In August, the N.C. Commission on the Administration of Law & Justice will hold public hearings on its reform proposals. One proposal calls for North Carolina to join the majority of states in the nation and raise the juvenile age to 18.
North Carolina currently treats 16- and 17-year-olds like adults for purposes of criminal justice. Consider Tommy, who gets into a school fight a day after his 16th birthday. Tommy is arrested. Because he can’t pay his secured bond, he’s detained in the local jail, with adult defendants. Tommy’s case proceeds to adult criminal court without any required parental involvement. Tommy is convicted and serves his sentence in adult prison. His criminal record is publicly available, making him ineligible for employment, public education, and college financial aid, among other things.
What would have happened if the fight occurred just two days earlier? Kids under 16 who commit crimes are treated as delinquent in the juvenile justice system. A court counselor could divert Tommy’s case, requiring him to participate in rehabilitative programs like counseling and teen court. If Tommy succeeds on diversion, his case could be closed. If not, it could go to juvenile court, with his parents required to participate. If Tommy is found delinquent, the judge would have a wide range of options for rehabilitation. If commitment is ordered, Tommy would go to a juvenile-only facility. The judge could require Tommy’s parents to do things like attend parental responsibility classes. And because Tommy’s juvenile record would be confidential, barriers to employment, education, college financial aid, and other consequences of a criminal conviction wouldn’t apply.
Juvenile age refers the age at which the state sends kids like Tommy to adult criminal court. The Commission’s Criminal Committee seeks public comment on its recommendation that North Carolina raise the juvenile age to 18 for all crimes except violent felonies and traffic offenses. Here is some of what the committee found when it examined the issue:
— Forty-three states plus the District of Columbia set the juvenile age at 18. Five set it at 17. Only two states — North Carolina and New York — prosecute both 16- and 17-year olds in adult criminal court. Governors in South Carolina and Louisiana signed raise-the-age legislation as recently as June; South Carolina’s law received unanimous support by the legislature.
— In any given year, only 3 to 4 percent of North Carolina’s 16- and 17-year olds are convicted of violent felonies. The vast majority commit misdemeanors.
— Studies show that recidivism is lower for juveniles in the juvenile system than in the adult criminal system. Lower recidivism means less crime. Experts say that the juvenile system’s focus on rehabilitation accounts for these results.
— Studies show that raising the age will produce long-term economic benefits for North Carolina, largely because of reduced recidivism.
— Other states have enacted raise-the-age legislation over objections that public safety would suffer and that costs would be unmanageable; none of this came to pass.
While the criminal system cuts parents out of the process, the juvenile system requires their participation, creating opportunities for parents to influence their teens and thus strengthening families.
The science of brain development teaches that teens are less able than adults to regulate behavior and assess long-term consequences. These and other characteristics make them less culpable than adults, explain why most mature out of crime, and why the juvenile system’s positive responses work better than punitive criminal measures.
Raising the age removes a competitive disadvantage the state places on its residents. When a North Carolinian applies for a job, his arrest for a teenaged school fight is discovered by the employer. For candidates from states other than New York or North Carolina, their juvenile records are confidential.
School-based complaints constitute almost half of the referrals to the juvenile system. Minor misbehavior that used to be handled in school now goes to the state justice system. Statewide implementation of school-justice programs designed to immediately and effectively deal with minor misbehavior in school will reduce juvenile case volume, freeing up money for raise the age. One such Georgia program reports an 83 percent reduction in school-based referrals; one North Carolina jurisdiction already is on board.
The committee’s proposal recommends more than just raising the age. Its balanced proposal includes other recommendations to address stakeholder concerns, like making sure that defendants can’t run away from their juvenile records. Support for raise the age crosses party lines. North Carolina bills to do it have been supported by lawmakers in both parties and raise the age proposals and related efforts enjoy bipartisan support nationwide.
Jessica Smith is a professor of Public Law and Government at UNC School of Government. She serves as reporter for the Criminal Committee of the North Carolina Commission on the Administration of Law and Justice. The content of this article is drawn from the committee’s draft report. This summary is intended to facilitate public comment only. To read the draft report and provide comments, visit www.NCCALJ.org.