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.
- Creates a Juvenile Justice Advisory Committee (JJAC) to plan and monitor implementation while providing regular recommendations to the NCGA.
The bill included $13.2 million for RTA implementation—all for a Youth Development Center (youth prison). In its March report, the JJAC recommended the NCGA appropriate an additional $31 million to implement legislation over the next two years.
Our Concerns about Current Recommendations
Council for Children’s Rights (CFCR) is actively engaged in local implementation planning. We are concerned about some of the recommendations in the JJAC report, including:
- Funding imbalances: Of the $31 million, the JJAC is recommending an additional $7.2 million for facility capital in FY2018-19 and $7.5 million in funds for community-based programs over the next two years. If the JJAC’s recommendations are accepted, the NCGA will allocate over $20 million to confine children and only $7.5 million for community-based programs. 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. 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.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.
- No process to transfer back to juvenile system: any child transferred to adult court, whether for a motor vehicle offense (e.g., speeding tickets), an A-G felony, or by discretion of the court, will stay in the adult court system for both current and future charges—even if charges are reduced from the felony. If children are immediately transferred to the adult system, we lose potential benefits associated with RTA.
- 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, there will not be resources to hold probable cause hearings and children will be automatically indicted—an issue further exacerbated by the lack of a transfer back provision. 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 attorneys have specialized knowledge of the juvenile law. 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.
- 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., Because defendants are not in the courtroom, video conferencing creates a disconnect to the court 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.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.
The Time to Take Action is Now
While we have concerns about some JJAC recommendations, RTA will not take effect until December 2019, which means we have time to plan better but we need move fast. These issues need to be addressed during the 2018 NCGA short session, beginning May 16, 2018. If implementation issues are not fixed in the 2018 short session, we won’t have another opportunity until long session 2019, leaving little time for adequate planning.
Below are CFCR’s recommendations to the JJAC and NCGA to serve children better when we integrate 16- and 17-year-olds into the juvenile justice system:
*Allocate additional funds for effective community-based programs instead of funding the confinement of children
*Ensure counties have adequate resources (e.g., staff, detention spaces) to implement legislation
*Create a transfer back provision to ensure children receive the benefits associated with the juvenile court system (e.g., rehabilitative services, family engagement)
*Do not implement a video conferencing system
*Address procedural questions (e.g., define motor vehicle offenses) before children are unnecessarily exposed to the adult criminal justice system
What You Can Do to Help
There is a lot of work left to do to ensure North Carolina adequately and appropriately implements RTA. YOU CAN HELP by:
*Learning more and sharing this information with your networks.
*Signing the petition to help ensure that these issues get in front of the JJAC.
*Contacting your county commissioners and state legislators to demand adequate funding.
-Find out who represents you on the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners here.
-Address email to your district’s Commissioner and At-Large Commissioners Pat Cotham, Ella Scarborough, and Trevor Fuller.
-Send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Call Your Representatives Today!
Click here to find out who represents you in the NCGA and call or email them.
Here’s a script to get you started but, remember, a personal touch goes a long way.
“Hello, my name is [name] and I am a constituent who lives [in city/neighborhood]. I’m calling to voice my concerns about inadequate funding for implementation of Raise the Age legislation that was passed through the state budget in June 2017.
“I support allocating additional funds to appropriately implement Raise the Age legislation.
Larger counties need funding for additional district court judges, assistant district attorneys, legal assistants, and clerks.
Additional funding should also be allocated for 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 recommendations, 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. Moving forward with this plan is a disservice to our children and potential benefits, such as cost savings and increased public safety, will be lost.”
For more information
Find out more about Raise the Age implementation and funding issues here.