North Carolina is one of only two states that send all 16-year-old offenders to the adult court system rather than the juvenile justice system. Marc Levin, director of the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, and Right on Crime, a national organization devoted to criminal justice policy research and analysis, believes North Carolina ought to change its “default setting” for treatment of 16-year-olds. He explained why during a conversation with Mitch Kokai for Carolina Journal Radio. (Click here to find a station near you or to learn about the weekly CJ Radio podcast.)

Kokai: This is an issue of interest to people here in North Carolina — what to do with our 16-year-olds when they break the law. How is North Carolina an outlier this time?

Levin: Well, it’s really interesting. North Carolina and New York are the only two states where 16-year-olds are considered adults. However, in New York they have what’s called a reverse waiver provision, that for certain 16-year-olds the court can say, because they’re immature, because it wasn’t too severe an offense, they can send them to the juvenile system. So North Carolina is really the only state where all 16-year-olds go into the adult system — whether that’s adult probation or adult prisons.

And what we’ve seen from the research is the juvenile justice system, for those this age, is really much more effective and rehabilitating. The juvenile system focuses a lot more on strengthening the family, which is really the key for 16-year-olds. And in juvenile facilities, these youngsters are much safer, less likely to be raped or assaulted.

Kokai: Now, one of the reasons that this is of interest is because 16-year-olds, once they finish any sentence they’ll get in the court system or the juvenile justice system, are likely to be back out on the streets?

Levin: That’s right. I mean, you know, obviously, if we talk about somebody who is serving life without parole for a homicide or something like that, we don’t want to spend really a dollar on rehabilitating them. But we’re talking about 16-year-olds. Whichever system they go to, they’re going to be back within several years while they’re still in their prime crime-committing years.

And so, long term, we know that if a youth becomes a career criminal over their whole lifetime, the cost to victims and taxpayers is $2 million to $3 million. So we have a big stake in turning around these wayward youths, and the research clearly indicates that the juvenile system is best situated to do that.

Kokai: Some people are going to hear our conversation, and their immediate thought is going to be, “OK, 16-year-olds, they go to adult court now. The talk is to put them in the juvenile justice system. This is just soft on crime. This is letting these teenagers get away with something.” What’s the response when you hear people talking like that?

Levin: Clearly, the juvenile justice system isn’t a walk in the park. I mean, you get punished. Of course, there [are] juvenile facilities. You could be put behind bars. But also, the juvenile system focuses on restitution for victims — which I think is critically important from a limited-government, free-market perspective — and also on rehabilitating these youths and working with the education [system], the child welfare system, the mental health system. I think that from a standpoint of efficiency, you really want to leverage what we’re already spending in those systems that touch these same youngsters.

And so 16-year-olds, for example, fall under the compulsory attendance law in North Carolina. They’re supposed to be in school. And the juvenile justice system makes sure they are in school and doesn’t charge them the same high fees — which, I think it’s appropriate to charge adult probationers fees to pay for the cost of supervision; they’re supposed to be out working, making a living, they should be able to pay the fees — but if you’re in school, I think that’s a different matter.

And we want these kids not to be dropouts. We want them to get a high school diploma. We want them to stop offending, and the juvenile justice system is the right place to do that, particularly when we’re talking about the current proposal on the table, which is only misdemeanors. We’re talking about a 16-year-old who had a small amount of marijuana or who stole something from a store. And do we want to give them a permanent adult criminal record that’s going to make it hard for the rest of their life to get a job, to get housing — really to be a government barrier to them being successful in the private sector?

Kokai: We talked about that whole issue of whether this is soft on crime or not. Another provision that you mentioned during a presentation on this to the John Locke Foundation’s Shaftesbury Society and in a report for the Locke Foundation, is that if 16-year-olds have as their sort of default position the juvenile justice system, they still could end up in adult court. There are provisions that would enable prosecutors to move them to adult court if it’s a tough offense, correct?

Levin: Right. And of course, the current proposal which has been scaled back is just misdemeanors. But let’s say we were still talking about the original proposal, which would have included felonies as well. But even under that, you’re absolutely right that under North Carolina law, right now, 14- and 15-year-olds who are in the juvenile system, any felony, the prosecutor can ask the court to certify them to stand trial as an adult and get a long adult prison sentence. And of course that’s typically used, as you would expect, for murders, rapes — fairly rare, serious crimes by youngsters. And we don’t have a problem with that.

And in Texas we also have blended sentencing, which is, in addition to the adult certification option, the blended sentencing is where they serve the first part of the sentence in the juvenile system. Then it goes back to the judge to decide, after they’ve been in a juvenile institution, have they been rehabilitated or do they need to spend the next … part of the sentence in an adult prison? Or if they think they’ve been rehabilitated, they’ll put them on adult parole for those … years.

So I recommend North Carolina consider the blended sentencing model to provide prosecutors and judges with yet another option. But really, the proposal at hand just deals with misdemeanors, and those are obviously nonviolent offenses involving marijuana or theft and things like that – and not to kind of in any way take away from the fact they’re serious. They’re still crimes, and these 16-year-olds need to be held accountable. But the juvenile justice system is fully able to do that.

Kokai: Some people might have as their main concern the cost implications, and one of the pieces of your presentation is what happens if someone who is a first-time offender becomes an offender again and has to be housed for years and years. And you said there are a lot of major cost implications if we don’t correct this bad behavior.

Levin: Well, right. The long-term cost: $2 million to $3 million if a juvenile offender becomes a lifetime career criminal. Thankfully, most don’t. The thing is, there is initial cost to this transition, but over the medium and long haul, there’ll be substantial savings for North Carolina taxpayers, which primarily come from reduced recidivism and also the fact that because juvenile probation is more effective for youngsters, 16-year-olds, than adult probation is, based on the research that there’ll be fewer of these offenders failing probation and therefore being revoked to prison.

Any type of incarceration is literally 25 times more than probation per day. So it’s really having a high success rate on probation and having fewer offenders who have to be revoked to prison, either for a new crime or because they’re missing appointments — a lot of technical violations. So that’s where these savings come from, and I think that it’s clear that those will dwarf the initial costs, which essentially stem from the fact that you have lower caseloads on juvenile probation, which is part of what makes it effective in working with the family.

And again, it goes back to, where do we want to spend our resources? We have limited resources. We don’t want to spend them on those sentenced to life without parole, an adult serial killer in prison who’s never going to get out. We don’t want to spend a penny on him. We want to spend the money on these 16- and 17-year-olds who have this long life ahead of them so that they don’t become career criminals. And that means we don’t want to just warehouse them. We want to change their behavior. And that’s what the juvenile justice system is best situated to do.