North Carolina is the last state in the country to adopt a Raise the Age law that no longer automatically charges 16-year-olds as adults.
The state had prosecuted 16-year-olds in the adult criminal justice system since 1919, and after the New York Raise the Age law went completely in effect on Oct. 1, 2019, North Carolina was the last one in the United States to do so.
North Carolina's Raise the Age law went into effect on Dec. 1, 2019, meaning 16- and 17-year-olds are no longer automatically charged as adults for most crimes.
The Juvenile Justice Reinvestment Act (JJRA) was passed by the General Assembly in 2017 following years of research, public advocacy and a recommendation by a state commission established in 2015 to evaluate the criminal justice system.
William Lassiter, deputy secretary of juvenile justice for the N.C. Department of Public Safety, said it took two years to prepare for the law's implementation.
“One thing we learned from other states was that if you just immediately change the law and weren’t prepared for the change that it could overwhelm the system on the first day,” Lassiter said. “We wanted to make sure we didn’t do that, that we were prepared so the change in the law would go smoothly and the policy could actually reap the benefits we see that it will in the future.”
The JJRA increases the age of juvenile court jurisdiction to cover 16- and 17-year-olds that committed any misdemeanor and Class H and I felonies, like possession of stolen goods. However, all motor vehicle offenses are excluded from juvenile court jurisdiction.
If the juvenile has a prior conviction, they will be tried in the adult criminal court, which is referred to as “once an adult, always an adult.” The exception is any motor vehicle misdemeanors or infractions not involving impaired driving.
Class A through G felonies committed by juveniles — such as murder and armed robbery — will start in the juvenile court system, but the act expedites transfer to adult court if the prosecutors find probable cause or the juvenile is indicted.
Lassiter said some of the ways the state prepared were increasing the number of beds in youth detention centers, hiring new juvenile court counselors and training law enforcement, judges and district attorneys on the new law.
Juvenile Project Attorney Austine Long works for the N.C. Office of the Juvenile Defender and helps train attorneys and public defenders to work in the juvenile justice system.
“I was really excited about Raise the Age... and the opportunity to hopefully increase the interest from an attorney standpoint in the area of juvenile delinquency because it’s an area that a lot of attorneys don’t necessarily focus in. I mean they do it, but a large part of their practice may be in another area,” Long said. “The opportunity to train attorneys in this one particular area was very appealing to me.”
Some benefits of raising the age are the potential savings for the state, improvements to public safety and the benefits for the juveniles themselves.
One study in Wisconsin found “for every 1,000 youth returned to the juvenile system there will be $5.8 million in direct savings each year through reduced law enforcement costs, court costs and losses to victims.”
That number doesn’t include money potentially saved from the future drop in court appearances due to decreased recidivism rates, or lowered chances a person will commit future crimes.
Among the juvenile population of states that have already implemented Raise the Age laws, recidivism rates have decreased by an average of 12.5 percent, Lassiter said.
Lassiter said the hope is to direct individuals into the juvenile justice system — which is more tailored toward the needs of 16- and 17-year-olds — to improve results and reduce crime rates.
Ann Webb, policy counsel for the ACLU of North Carolina, spoke to the benefits of having 16- and 17-year-olds in the juvenile justice system.
“When young people go into the adult criminal system, it puts them at greater risk of many different harms, both short term and long term,” Webb said. “There are higher rates of suicide, higher rates of sexual assault and higher rates of recidivism.”
The law is not retroactive, but there are two bills pending in the General Assembly that will help 16- and 17-year-olds convicted of crimes in the adult criminal system before the JJRA went into effect.
One would allow juveniles being charged as adults to be housed in juvenile facilities instead of adult jail, and the other would help to expunge their record of crimes committed that would be covered by the law.
“Raise The Age is really exciting because it will keep many 16- and 17-year-olds from having their life derailed by permanent records and time spent in adult jail facilities,” Webb said. “These experiences can reverberate for years and make it really difficult for a young person to overcome a youthful mistake.”
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