North Carolina should consider joining almost every other state in making the juvenile justice system the default destination for 16-year-olds charged with crimes. That’s the conclusion two Texas-based criminal justice experts reach in a new Spotlight report prepared for the John Locke Foundation.
Report co-author Marc Levin will share details from the research during a public presentation at noon today at the John Locke Foundation office in Raleigh.
“North Carolina is one of only two states that automatically send all 16- and 17-year-old defendants to the adult justice system, but concerns about deterrence, repeat offenses, the absence of education or training, and the potential for harm indicate North Carolina should reconsider its existing laws,” said Levin, director of the Center for Effective Justice at the Austin-based Texas Public Policy Foundation and Right on Crime, a national organization devoted to criminal justice policy research and analysis.
Levin and co-author Jeanette Moll, the Center for Effective Justice’s juvenile justice policy analyst, detail each of these concerns in their report. They also document safeguards that would ensure the “worst of the worst” juvenile offenders continue to be tried and imprisoned as adults, and recommend a “blended sentencing” mechanism that incorporates both the juvenile and adult systems.
Thirty-seven states set the maximum age of jurisdiction for their juvenile justice systems at 18, while 11 states set the age at 17, according to Levin and Moll’s report. North Carolina and New York are alone in sending all 16-year-olds to the adult system. New York allows for a reconsideration of that initial placement.
“Unlike New York, North Carolina does not have a reverse waiver provision that allows 16-year-olds to petition the adult court to send them to juvenile court,” Levin said. “This means North Carolina is the only state where all 16-year-olds end up in adult court.”
Even if North Carolina raises its age of juvenile system jurisdiction, prosecutors still could steer 16-year-olds to adult courts when they commit serious offenses, Levin said. “North Carolina has a robust system of transfer for felony juvenile offenders,” he said. “State law permits transfer to the adult system for those defendants 13 and older who are charged with a felony. The law requires a transfer to the adult system for a younger offender charged with first-degree murder upon a finding of probable cause.”
A blended sentencing mechanism like the one used in Texas also could help limit the public safety risk from a younger offender, Levin said. “In this system, courts are allowed to send minors to the juvenile system for the first part of their sentence, with the second part to be served in the adult system,” he said. “In Texas, a court decides at age 19 whether the offender should be released on adult parole or transferred to adult prison.”
Sending a 16-year-old to the adult justice system raises three significant concerns, Levin said. “First, adult-court jurisdiction of juveniles does not deter juvenile crime,” he said. “Our report highlights studies from New York, Idaho, and Georgia that rebut the idea that turning 16-year-olds over to the adult courts will reduce juvenile crime rates.”
Second, adult-court jurisdiction leads to poor rehabilitation of juveniles, Levin said. “Studies analyzed in our report showed higher rates of repeat offenses for minors tried in the adult court system than in juvenile courts, even when controlling for other risk factors,” he said. “A systematic review of seven studies found an average 33.7 increase in re-arrest rates for juveniles placed in the adult court system.”
In North Carolina, low-risk minors in the adult system were more than twice as likely to be re-arrested as low-risk offenders between 18 and 21 years old, Levin added. “In contrast, less than half of those sent to and released from a secure lockup in the juvenile system ever were re-arrested as adults. Only about one-third of those offenders committed to juvenile detention facilities were re-arrested as adults.”
The third significant concern involves the safety and effectiveness of adult facilities housing juveniles, Levin said. “Research points to higher rates of sexual and other physical violence against minors in adult prisons, along with a higher risk of suicide,” he said. “In addition to this safety concern, adult prisons offer young offenders less access to education and other programming. This fact puts these young offenders at a serious disadvantage when they’re released back into society.”
Levin and Moll’s research leads them to a clear conclusion. “For the vast majority of 16-year-old offenders, the appropriate venue to address their offenses is the juvenile justice system,” Levin said. “It’s appropriate for juveniles because it leads to better outcomes. It’s appropriate for North Carolina’s citizens because it creates a safer state for all.”