—The Associated Press’s Gary D. Robertson’s observation on the NC legislature’s Crossover Deadline
Twelve days ago, the General Assembly hit the crossover deadline, with more than 200 bills clearing either the House or the Senate in one week. Unless a bill had tax or spending provisions, it had to cross from one chamber to the other or die. Nearly 1,000 bills died when they weren’t approved by one of the chambers before the deadline.
After crossover, the Senate immediately pivoted to the budget, which apparently will come out later today. In a few days, the Senate expects to pass its budget, and the House will pivot to work on its budget with the expectation that it will be complete by late May. With the fiscal year ending on June 30, the common goal is to enact a budget in advance of that date. With Republicans in charge of the legislature and a Democratic governor, legislators will either have to pass the budget with veto-proof majorities in both chambers or adopt a budget that Governor Cooper will accept.
The frustration for this legislator is the pace. We had a break for Easter, then came back and nearly killed ourselves for a little over a week and then nothing. Last week, we celebrated UNC’s national championship basketball team. There were no recorded votes and few, if any, committee meetings. This week is starting much the same with no-vote sessions scheduled for the first, several days. While one might expect that the House would take up the veto override of House Bill 467 [Agriculture and Forestry Nuisance Remedies] this week, the Rules Committee Chair David Lewis (R-Harnett) was quoted as saying that it will wait until next week since some Members aren’t here this week.
My only consolation is that my “Raise-the-Age” bill will be heard later this week, first in the House Judiciary I Committee and then the next day in the House Appropriations Committee. With a recent change in New York law, North Carolina is now the only state that treats 16- and 17-year olds as adults under our criminal laws. 16- and 17-year olds cannot legally drink alcohol, vote, or enter into contracts, but they can receive adult criminal convictions and lifelong criminal records.
HB280 [Juvenile Justice Reinvestment Act] is an outgrowth of the North Carolina Commission on the Administration of Law & Justice, established by Chief Justice Mark Martin. In its final report, reached after fifteen months of work, the commission recommended that North Carolina raise the age of juvenile court jurisdiction to include youthful offenders aged 16- and 17-years old for all crimes except Class A through E felonies and traffic offenses. There were a number of contingencies, but the biggest is the requirement of “full funding” to implement the change. The commission said the stakeholders were “unanimous in the view that full funding must be provided to implement these recommendations and that an unfunded or partially unfunded mandate to raise the age will be detrimental to the court system and community safety.”
There were many reasons put forward in support of raising the age. First, most NC youthful offenders commit misdemeanors and non-violent felonies. Why would one put most youthful offenders in the adult criminal justices system when only a small number of very serious juvenile offenders should be tried and punished as adults? Second, raising the age should make North Carolina safer. Research has consistently shown that rehabilitation of juveniles is more effectively obtained in the juvenile justice system and juvenile facilities, as measured by recidivism rates. Third, raising the age will yield economic benefits. Two studies indicate that raising the juvenile age will produce significant economic benefits with estimated cost savings resulting from reduced recidivism which “eliminates future costs associated with youth ‘graduating’ to the adult criminal system, and increased lifetime earnings for youths without the burden of criminal records.”
When legislation may potentially result in “fiscal effects” that may not be apparent, House Rule 36.1 requires a Fiscal Note be prepared to outline the potential costs of a bill. The fiscal note for HB280 suggests the costs in the first year (2017-18) will be $25.3 million for a 96-bed facility needing to open in 2020, when the bill would adjust the age of jurisdiction. Thereafter, the fiscal note projects an approximate $44 million in recurring annual costs.
Supporters of HB280 say there is reason to believe that actual costs may be lower than estimated due to declining arrest rates for juveniles and potential cost reductions associated with statewide implementation of school justice partnerships designed to reduce referrals to the juvenile justice system. So often, when I work on some public policy, some fact surprises me, and that is true of the raise-the-age issue. In North Carolina, school-based complaints account for almost half of the referrals to the juvenile justice system. In other words, classroom misbehaviors, which not that long ago would have been handled by the schools, are now being referred to the courts.
Responding to these concerns, various groups and individuals across the country have developed programs to stem the flow of school-based referrals to the court system. The idea is for school systems to immediately discipline bad behavior and only refer repeat offenders to the court system. One such program is active in Wilmington and has seen positive, albeit preliminary, results.
Raise-the-Age has broad support, including politically conservative supporters like the John Locke Foundation and politically liberal supporters like the American Civil Liberties Union. Champions include a wide range of professional organizations, like the NC Sheriffs Association, the Police Benevolent Association and the League of Municipalities. A broad range of nonprofits, including MomsRising, Justice Matters, and NC Child, also support the bill.
With the House taking up HB280 as the Senate budget is passed, the question for legislators will be whether they are currently prepared to make an investment in the juvenile justice system to expand to include 16- and 17-year olds. While there is apparently a broad consensus regarding the need to raise the age, only the budget adopted by both chambers will tell whether the legislature is ready to fund that change. While the expectation is that raising the age will save money in the long term by reducing recidivism, in the short term, raising the age comes at a cost. In the coming months, we’ll know whether the legislature is willing to bear the cost now.