March 2019 Update

In December 2019, 16- and 17-year-olds in North Carolina will be absorbed in the juvenile court system where they can engage in rehabilitative services with family involvement. We applaud the inclusion of 16- and 17-year-olds in a system designed to serve youth; however, multiple procedural, staffing, and programming questions remain. These unanswered questions threaten to undermine the good for children and squander potential cost savings. Specifically, these issues beg the question: are we raising the age in name only? In June 2017, the North Carolina General Assembly (NCGA) passed raise the age legislation (RTA) through the state budget bill, which:

  • Raises the age of adult criminal responsibility from 16 to 18 effective December 2019.
  • Establishes a special transfer process for 16- and 17-year-olds charged with A-G felonies.
  • Mandates a school-justice partnership to reduce school-based referrals to court.
  • Allows victims to request the prosecutor to review the decision not to file a petition.
  • Increases access to information for law enforcement, district attorneys, and public defenders.
  • Adds a gang assessment to intake procedures and increases severity of punishment if charges are related to criminal gang activity.
  • Allocates $13.2 million for implementation—all for a Youth Development Center (youth prison).
  • Creates a Juvenile Justice Advisory Committee (JJAC) to plan and monitor implementation while providing regular recommendations to the NCGA.

Since December 2017, JJAC has convened several times to plan for implementation and provide recommendations to the NCGA. In January 2019, JJAC’s report addressed several concerns raised by local jurisdictions, child-serving organizations, and child advocates. Specifically, it recommended that 16- and 17-year-olds transferred to the adult court system have a transfer back opportunity upon joint motion from the prosecutor and their defense attorney. JJAC also recommended that youth found responsible of minor motor vehicle offenses (e.g., speeding tickets) should not find themselves stuck in the adult system. If accepted, these recommendations would better serve North Carolina’s youth.

In addition to these procedural recommendations, JJAC called for additional funds to be allocated to the Juvenile Justice System, Administrative Office of the Courts, the Office of the Juvenile Defender, and the Conference of District Attorneys to implement legislation. The recommended appropriation schedule is $51 million in FY20, $66 million in FY21, and $60 million annualized[1]

While there is room for improvement in the current recommendations [detailed below], RTA will take effect December 2019, which means we have time to make improvements but we need act fast. These issues must be addressed during the current legislative session, which began January 9th. If implementation issues are not addressed in the 2019 session, we won’t have another opportunity before implementation begins and our youth will be served inadequately. Below are CFCR’s recommendations to the NCGA to serve children better when we integrate 16- and 17-year-olds into the juvenile justice system:

  • Accept JJAC’s recommendation to create a transfer back provision to ensure children receive the benefits associated with the juvenile court system (e.g., rehabilitative services, family engagement
  • Accept JJAC’s recommendation to change the definition of motor vehicle offenses to ensure children are not unnecessarily exposed to the adult criminal justice system
  • Allocate additional funds for effective community-based programs and alternatives-to-detention instead of funding the confinement of children
  • Ensure counties have adequate resources (e.g., staff, detention spaces) to implement legislation
  • Do not implement a video conferencing system
  • Create processes to monitor implementation of the risk assessment to ensure it does not exacerbate Disproportionate Minority Contact or increase punitive responses for girls

There is a lot of work left to do to ensure North Carolina adequately and appropriately implements RTA.

Here’s how you can help:

  1. Stay informed and share this information with your networks.
  2. Contact your county commissioners and state legislators to demand adequate funding that includes alternatives to detention.
    • To find out who represents you on the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners: click here and enter your address.
      • Address email to your district’s Commissioner and At-Large Commissioners Pat Cotham, Ella Scarborough, and Trevor Fuller.
      • Send email to webmasters@mecklenburgcountync.gov.
    • To find you State Senator or Congressperson: click here and enter your address. You can call or write them an email!

Here’s a script to get you started but, remember, a personal touch goes a long way

“Hello, my name is [your name] and I am a constituent who lives [in city/neighborhood]. I’m calling to voice my concerns about inadequate funding to implement Raise the Age legislation that was passed in June 2017.

I support allocating additional funds to appropriately implement Raise the Age legislation. In particular, more funding should be allocated to community-based services and alternatives-to-detention, and we should decrease funding for the confinement of children. In addition, larger counties need funding for additional district court judges, assistant district attorneys, legal assistants, defense attorneys, and clerks.

Additional funding should also be allocated for local detention facilities so children will not be transported and housed far from home where they’ll be further isolated and families will not be able to visit their children. The recommendation to use a video conferencing system is misguided and will cause greater harm to children because research suggests they will be disconnected from the court and judged more harshly. Finally, additional funding should be allocated to ensure all court-involved children have access to an attorney with specialized knowledge of the juvenile justice system.

Based on the current state of the legislation and unaccepted recommendations from the Juvenile Justice Advisory Committee, North Carolina and, in particular, Mecklenburg County will be unable to adequately implement legislation and appropriately serve children in the juvenile justice system. Without additional funding, North Carolina will raise the age in name only. We cannot move forward with this plan without accepting JJAC’s legislative and funding recommendations but policymakers must go beyond these to ensure we are not doing a disservice to our children and losing potential benefits, such as cost savings and increased public safety.”

Opportunities for Improvement:

Council for Children’s Rights (CFCR) is actively engaged in local implementation planning and are concerned about some of the recommendations in the JJAC report, including:

  • Funding for confinement: Since their first report, JJAC substantially increased recommended funding for community-based services by almost 6x (from $7.5 million over 2 years to $21 million annually). Additional funding for community-based programs is a step in the right direction. However, $13.2 million has already been allocated for a Youth Development Center (youth prison) and JJAC recommendations call for annualized funding of almost $17 million for confinement of youth in jail- and prison-like facilities. Research on effective interventions in juvenile justice suggest punitive models (e.g., probation, surveillance, boot camps, group homes, incarceration) increase the likelihood children will engage in antisocial behaviors.[2] Ensuring all court-involved youth receive adequate supports and interact in a rehabilitative system is critical to reduce recidivism and encourage children to live a positive, safe, law-abiding lifestyle.[3] Community-based programs have been shown to be effective at reducing delinquent behavior when they are rehabilitative and address risk factors (e.g., family dysfunction, substance abuse); however, few of these programs exist and fewer than 5% of children involved in the juvenile court system in the US receive these services.[4] As a state, we should focus less on confining children and, instead, focus more on better serving youth and our communities by funding more and increasing access to detention alternatives.
  • No additional funding for Mecklenburg County:
    • Inadequate staffing: JJAC recommendations do not include funds for Mecklenburg County judges or assistant district attorneys, or public defenders anywhere in the state. Without additional judges and assistant district attorneys in Mecklenburg, children could be automatically indicted or experience case delays that extend their involvement in the system. CFCR is the public defender for children in Mecklenburg County. We expect to hire additional staff for RTA and fear that, without additional funding, we will no longer be able to provide robust services to youth in juvenile court. CFCR is also the only organization of its kind where the public defender for youth have specialized knowledge of juvenile law. JJAC’s recommendation to hire one state-level full-time employee to support defenders in implementation of legislation is inadequate. In order for legislation to be effective, the NCGA must allocate funds to appropriately staff the juvenile court system across the state.
    • Lack of detention spaces: Currently, Mecklenburg County children are detained in Cabarrus. The Cabarrus detention facility is consistently at or near capacity. After 16- and 17-year-olds are absorbed into the juvenile court system, more children will need to be transported and detained in facilities across the state. This shift will mean children could be detained in facilities far from home and will not return to their district for court, further isolating them from their families and communities, and disconnecting them from the juvenile court system. There is also the potential to create a new youth detention facility in Mecklenburg but details between the County and State have not been finalized.
  • Potential use of a video conferencing system: When children are detained outside of their district, JJAC is recommending children attend court remotely using video conferences, in part, to reduce transportation costs. Research on the use of video conferencing systems for children is limited but, for adults, findings point to a greater disconnect with the court system experienced by defendants and actors in the courtroom (e.g., judge, prosecutor) experience heightened negative perceptions of defendants.[5],[6] Specifically, video conferencing creates a disconnect to the court in the adult system because defendants are not in the courtroom, which negatively impacts their understanding of the proceeding, does not allow for private conversations with counsel, and lessens the gravity of orders from judges—all issues that would be exacerbated for children. In addition, witnesses are seen as less credible when they appear via video—a perception that would also negatively affect children involved in the juvenile court system. Further, research from the adult system finds defendants are viewed more negatively over video because of the inability to make eye contact, our cultural expectations related to television (e.g., individuals seen on video should be telegenic, competent, and well-presented), and, depending on camera angle, the exaggeration of facial expressions of the defendant or emphasis on their presence in a detention facility.[7] Finally, using video conferences threatens the ability for juvenile court system to include families in the rehabilitative process. Detaining children far from home will make it difficult, if not impossible, for families to visit their children and using a video for court appearances will further isolate children who are already in a vulnerable position.
  • Risk assessment: JJAC recommends adoption and use of the Youth Assessment and Screening Instrument (YASI) at all juvenile court decision points to assess risks, needs, and strengths of court-involved youth. Currently, no standard risk assessment is used across the state and many jurisdictions use subjective assessments that are not evidence-based. The YASI can be normed and validated on a national sample of youth up to age 21, can show changes in risk over time, produce a case planning instrument, and is predictive of future involvement in the court system. There are many advantages to YASI and we support implementing a risk assessment that is evidence-based and less susceptible to bias. However, use of this measure should be carefully implemented and monitored. Specifically, factors related to youth’s attitudes are more subjective and have the potential to artificially raise or lower risk scores. In addition, studies validating the measure have been generally positive but include samples that are approximately two-thirds White, which do not reflect the demographics of all North Carolina counties. Research also shows Black youth and girls were less likely to be classified at the appropriate risk level. This finding was more pronounced for girls, which lead to assessment creators adjusting girls’ cut-off scores.[8],[9] Finally, the assessment uses previous juvenile justice involvement as a risk factor. However, youth of color are disproportionately represented in the juvenile justice system.[10] Despite minor differences in offense commission, data do not support the notion that disproportionately is the result of differential behavior, which suggests risk assessments are a better predictor of future system contact rather than which youths are more likely to reoffend.
  • Changes to Juvenile Crime Prevention Council structure: a Juvenile Crime Prevention Council (JCPC) exists in each North Carolina county to review the needs of court-involved youth and those at risk for involvement, prioritize community risk factors, propose needed services, and monitor and evaluate those services. In its current structure, there are positions for two youth members under 18. JJAC recommends the age for youth members be increased to 21 and the Council should have the option to fill one of the two youth positions with a family advocate. Since youth partake in and benefit from JCPC services, their voices are critical. The NCGA should not approve JJAC’s recommendation to allow for the dilution of the youth voice on JCPC. Instead, a family advocate position could be added to JCPC.   

  [1] Juvenile Justice Advisory Committee. (2019). Juvenile age interim report. Retrieved from https://files.nc.gov/ncdps/documents/files/JJAC_Jan_15_report_Complete.pdf

[2] Henggeler, S.W. & Sohoenwald, S.K. (2011). Evidence-based interventions for juvenile offenders and juvenile justice policies that support them. Social Policy Report, 25(1).

[3] Pringle, S. (2015). Strengthening juvenile defense representation by partnering with social workers: A holistic approach. Retrieved from http://www.fairdefense.org/wp-content/uploads/media/TFDP_Hogg_Report_Jan_2015-web.pdf

[4] Ibid.

[5] McKay. C. (2016). Video links from prison: Permeability and the carceral world. Journal for Crime, Justice, and Social Democracy, 5(1), 21-37.

[6] Poulin, A.B. (2004). Criminal justice and videoconferencing technology: The remote defendant. Tulane Law Review, 78, 1089-1167.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Baird, C., Healy, T., Johnson, K., Bogie, A., Dankert, E.W., & Scharenbroch, C. (2013). A comparison of risk assessment instruments in juvenile justice. Retrieved from http://www.nccdglobal.org/sites/default/files/publication_pdf/nccd_fire_report.pdf

[9] Orbis Partners. (2007). Long-term validation of the Youth Assessment and Screening Instrument (YASI) in New York state juvenile probation. Retrieved from https://www.criminaljustice.ny.gov/opca/pdfs/YASI-Long-Term-Validation-Report.pdf

[10] Development Services Group, Inc. (2015). Risk and needs assessment for youths. Retrieved from https://www.ojjdp.gov/mpg/litreviews/RiskandNeeds.pdf

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