A measure to raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction in North Carolina could keep upward of eleven thousand teens out of the state's adult court system each year, beginning in December 2019. The proposal, included in a $23 billion state budget approved by legislators last week, would direct sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds charged with misdemeanors and two classes of nonviolent felonies to juvenile court.
Currently, North Carolina is one of two states that automatically try all sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds as adults. The other state, New York, voted in April to raise its age of juvenile jurisdiction beginning next year.
Although Governor Cooper announced Monday that he would veto the legislature's budget—an override is likely—raising the age has won support from Cooper and legislators, who in May approved a similar measure via House Bill 280.
"Raising the age is the right thing for public safety and for turning young people away from crime, and it can also save taxpayers money," Cooper told the INDY in a statement. "It will require sustained investments in juvenile justice prevention and treatment, and I call on the legislature to work with me to make sure North Carolina puts the long-term resources needed into raising the age."
Advocates say the juvenile court system is better suited for teens who may not fully grasp the consequences of their actions. With more intervention than in the adult system, teens will be less likely to reoffend and will avoid criminal records that could keep them from getting into college or getting jobs, proponents say.
The plan included in the General Assembly's budget isn't exactly the one advocates had pushed for. But it still represents a significant shift for North Carolina's courts.
A proposal put forth in March by the N.C. Commission on the Administration of Law and Justice—and echoed in HB 280—recommended exempting sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds charged with misdemeanors and four classes of felonies, classes F through I, from adult court. There are ten classes of felonies in North Carolina, with Class A being the most serious. The budget proposal carves out misdemeanors and class H and I felonies from adult jurisdiction.
According to a fiscal note attached to HB 280, 20,814 misdemeanor or Class H or I felony charges were filed against an estimated 11,784 sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds in fiscal year 2015. In fiscal year 2016, 421 sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds faced a non-motor-vehicle-related misdemeanor or class H or I felony as the highest charge in their case in Durham County, according to the Administrative Office of the Courts. For Orange County, that number was 140. For Wake, 2,041.
Class H and I felonies include breaking and entering, larceny, forgery, and some drug charges, among other offenses.
"The number one benefit is avoiding the direct and indirect consequences of being in the adult system by not having the arrest or charge on the record," says Peggy Nicholson, codirector of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice's Youth Justice Project. "Just having that kind of privacy and being able to handle that in a confidential manner is a huge benefit for sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds and will put them on a level playing field with kids in other states."
The age of juvenile jurisdiction has been fifteen in North Carolina for a century, and efforts to raise that threshold have been in the works since the 1950s.
"It's a tremendous step in the right direction," says state Representative Marcia Morey, who served as a district court judge in Durham County for nearly eighteen years. "Every year we have hundreds of sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds charged with misdemeanors and low-level felonies in Durham County and now have a permanent record."
Informed by her experiences on the bench, Morey—who was appointed in March to fill the seat of the late Paul Luebke, who died last year—has long been an advocate of raising the age and helped establish Durham's misdemeanor diversion program, the first in the state. She says seeing young offenders in court was "heartbreaking."
"Even if it's a minor offense, it has lifetime consequences," she says.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Texas, Missouri, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Georgia prosecute seventeen-year-olds as adults. Under North Carolina's budget proposal, young offenders could still be transferred to adult courts for serious offenses.
The move will be costly but should save the state money in the long run. There would be an influx of teens into the juvenile system, requiring more court counselors, greater detention center capacity, and more work hours for law enforcement and court staff. The budget sets aside $13.2 million for a new youth development center in Rockingham County.
Raising the age has earned the support of the state's Department of Public Safety, the N.C. Sheriff's Association, the N.C. Police Benevolent Association, and the N.C. Conference of District Attorneys.
In 2011, the nonprofit Vera Institute of Justice looked at what it would cost for North Carolina to exempt teens charged with misdemeanors and four classes of felonies from adult court. The study found that while the change would cost the state an additional $49.2 million annually, it would also generate an annual net benefit of $52.3 million by reducing recidivism rates, saving would-be victims on the costs of stolen items, medical care, and court fees, and helping to eliminate hurdles teens with criminal records face later on in life.
"It's not about collecting fines or fees or jail sentencing," Morey says. "It's about identifying the problems a young person has and about rectifying those problems to help them have a better future."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Suffer the Children." This story has been updated to include county-level data received after the original version went to press.