This video excerpt is from the May 23, 2014 episode of UNC-TV’s Legislative Week in Review with Kelly McCullen. Each week, Mr. McCullen takes an in-depth, balanced look at legislation that features interviews with lawmakers and a comprehensive analysis of the week’s events. Watch Fridays at 9:00pm. Check your local listings for details.
On Wednesday, March 21, the North Carolina House of Representatives passed historic bipartisan legislation reforming the way that juvenile offenders are treated under the state’s criminal justice system. The Young Offenders Rehabilitation Act, commonly referred to as the “Raise the Age Bill,” raises the age of juvenile court jurisdiction from 16 to 18 by the year 2020 for children who are convicted of certain low-level, non-violent misdemeanors. The law has not changed since 1919.
The legislation does not take away a prosecutor’s ability to try teenagers as adults in the gravest cases nor would it apply to juveniles who are gang members charged with gang-related crimes. House Bill 725 passed 77-39 and now makes its way to the Senate.
A 2012 John Locke Foundation report showed that treating young offenders as adults does not, in fact, actually deter juvenile crime and usually results in poor rehabilitation. One study found an 85 percent increase in re-arrest rates amongst juveniles tried in the adult court system over those retained in the juvenile justice system.
Studies show that incarcerated 16 and 17-year olds are also at heightened risk for both sexual assault and suicide, and advocacy groups supporting reform say that the legislation could also help to reduce the rate of recidivism by as much as ten percent.
“Young people who land in the adult criminal justice system are disproportionately at risk while in custody, more likely to return to criminal behavior than those placed in the juvenile system, and denied jobs and educational opportunities that could help them turn their lives around and contribute to society” said Sarah Preston, Policy Director for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of North Carolina.
Preston echoed a troubling 2009 report from the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission which found that “more than any other group of incarcerated persons, youth incarcerated with adults are probably at the highest risk for sexual abuse.” The United States Congress had earlier determined that juveniles were five times more likely to be sexually assaulted in adult (rather than juvenile) facilities, and often within the first 48 hours of incarceration.
Another problem encountered by treating juvenile offenders as adults is the unequal access they face to continuing education. Minors in the adult criminal justice systems have fewer opportunities to access education and other age-specific programming than those in the juvenile justice system. The same John Locke Foundation report showed that while some North Carolina adult facilities offered services to inmates so they could obtain a GED, there were no available programs to allow incarcerated youth to work to earn their high school diplomas.
Others rightly point out that a juvenile criminal record can be a significant disadvantage in applying for jobs. “From a human resource perspective, I will tell you that it’s very difficult for people to change jobs in today’s society if there is a record of them violating the law at any point in their life,” said Representative Tim Moffitt during the floor debate on the bill.
Policy groups claim that the state would benefit financially from the change in the law as well. A 2011 study estimated that raising the age of juvenile jurisdiction from 16 to 18 for those charged with misdemeanors and low-level felonies would generate $52.3 million in net benefits for North Carolina.
“On the surface, raising the maximum age of jurisdiction for North Carolina’s juvenile justice system can appear to lead to higher costs,” said report co-author Marc Levin, director of the Center for Effective Justice and Right on Crime, a national organization devoted to criminal justice policy research and analysis. “However, evidence suggests that any short-term cost advantages of keeping 16- and 17-year-olds in the adult criminal justice system are ultimately overwhelmed by higher long-term costs.”
Cost-benefit analyses conducted by the Vera Institute of Justice also found that raising the age of juvenile jurisdiction would lead to an annual cost of $70.9 million to taxpayers but would generate $123.1 million in recurring benefits for youth, victims and taxpayers.