RALEIGH — North Carolina is one step closer toward raising the age for juvenile offenders.
House Bill 280, Juvenile Justice Reinvestment Act, on May 17 passed the state House in a sweeping 104-8 vote.
The bill would move 16- and-17-year-old nonviolent offenders out of adult court and place them under the juvenile justice system, effective December 2019. North Carolina is the only state that hasn’t raised its juvenile age limit to 17 or 18.
Cost is a main reason for lawmakers’ hesitation.
Raising the age would cost roughly $25 million during 2017-18, and $44 million annually beginning in 2020.
North Carolina’s juvenile justice system has saved the state more than $40 million in recurring funds since 2008. System reforms and dropping delinquency rates have led to the savings.
The state can afford to make the investment, said Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson, the bill’s primary sponsor.
Kids charged in juvenile court are offered state-provided counseling and rehabilitation. Parents or guardians are also required to join in the process.
When charged in adult court, parents are removed from the process.
Reform is costly up front, but it will help reduce recidivism among young adults, saving the state money in the long run, McGrady said.
It’s also the right thing to do.
“By saddling our youth with their youthful mistakes, we limit these youths potential for educational and [vocational] success.”
While the vote was overwhelmingly in favor of H.B. 280, a handful of members worried the bill would let juveniles off the hook for more serious crimes.
If 16- and-17-year-olds are old enough to drive, they’re old enough to know that they shouldn’t break the law, said Rep. Larry Pittman, R-Cabarrus.
“I came to protect citizens and their rights. I don’t believe we can do that by going soft on crime,” he said.
Juveniles convicted of any violent crime, Class A-E felonies, would be punished as adults. So would those who commit motor vehicle infractions.
Rep. Jeff Collins, R-Franklin, said some F-I felonies are too violent to be included, and the bill should cover only misdemeanors, such as “jaywalking or pranks.”
“Only 3.3 percent of 16- and-17-year-olds are convicted of violent felonies,” said Rep. Duane Hall, D-Wake. “It’s a small percentage, and this bill does not include those.”
Charging juveniles as adults doesn’t mean they’ll get the appropriate level of retribution and incapacitation, said Jon Guze, director of legal studies at the John Locke Foundation. At times, doing so can even result in a lighter punishment.
“Very few adults who are convicted of such crimes are sent to prison; instead, the majority are sentenced to some sort of intermediate punishment — like supervised drug treatment or house arrest — or to some form of community punishment — like community service or unsupervised probation,” Guze said.
Guze said the punishments are similar for these offenses in the adult and juvenile systems. “In the juvenile system, however, they would be forced to participate in education and counselling programs that have been repeatedly shown to be effective at rehabilitating juvenile offenders and helping them become productive citizens.”
Several lawmakers say H.B. 280 is a work in progress.
The legislature’s fiscal analysis has overstated some of the cost projections, said William Lassiter, deputy commissioner of public safety.
State researchers have estimated the Department of Public Safety will need $10.8 million to build a 96-bed detention center.
There aren’t enough sentenced kids to fill that space, Lassiter said. The department has said it could work with 60 beds and add more later if needed.
The Senate last week adopted a similar, raise-the-age provision in its budget proposal. But that measure did not include any funding. Unlike H.B. 280, the Senate version did not include 16- and-17-year-olds convicted of nonviolent felonies.