Almost exactly one year ago, South Carolina’s state senate was presented with a measure to raise the default age at which those accused of committing crimes were treated as adults rather than as juveniles. For decades, that age had been 16 in South Carolina.
The distinction matters a lot. If a 16-year-old is charged as an adult, his parent or guardian will be notified, but other than that the case proceeds as if the kid isn’t a minor. Unless released before trial, he may be held in jail with hardened criminals for months. And all records of the case are public, even if the kid is never convicted.
If that same 16-year-old is arrested as a juvenile, however, the process unfolds quite differently. Parents or guardians are involved at each step. Depending on the offense, the juvenile may be immediately diverted into special programs, counseling, mediation, or other procedures that don’t look much like criminal court. The case is sealed, thus ensuring that juveniles are not dogged by criminal records — or even arrest records that never lead to convictions — as they seek to enter college or the workforce.
Most importantly for society as a whole, whether such cases end up in the juvenile or adult systems is a decision that affects future rates of crime, family formation, and government expenditure. While juvenile settings can cost more in the short run, they appear to result in lower rates of recidivism — of young offenders committing more crimes in the future. Those additional crimes can cost taxpayers far more in the long run, while of course subjecting the victims of future crimes to material and emotional losses.
A year ago, state senators in South Carolina heard all these arguments. They also heard from opponents of raising the default age of juvenile jurisdiction, some of whom argued that 16- and 17-year-olds who commit crimes ought to be treated like adults because they are old enough to know right from wrong. Senators heard that keeping the default age at 16 gave law enforcement in South Carolina a useful tool with which to combat gang violence. They heard other arguments against the bill, as well.
So what did the South Carolina Senate decide to do? On April 27, 2016, senators voted unanimously to approve a bill to raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction to 18 for most crimes, while continuing to charge 16- and 17-year-olds as adults in cases of violent crimes and other serious felonies. On May 4, the South Carolina House also voted unanimously for the bill.
With the recent passage of “raise the age” bills in other states, too, that leaves North Carolina as the only place where the default age of juvenile jurisdiction remains 16. State representatives Chuck McGrady (R-Henderson), David Lewis (R-Harnett), Susan Martin (R-Wilson), and Duane Hall (D-Wake) have introduced House Bill 280 to address the issue. It would also set the default age for juvenile jurisdiction in North Carolina at 18, except in cases of serious felonies. Well over 90 percent of 16- and 17-year-olds currently treated as adults in the system are convicted of misdemeanors or low-level felonies, so raising the default would move the vast majority of cases into the juvenile system.
Groups across the ideological spectrum support the idea. It was a central recommendation of the commission Chief Justice Mark Martin formed a couple of years ago to study North Carolina’s court system. The think tank whose board I chair, the John Locke Foundation, has advocated raising the age for many years. A new group called Conservatives for Criminal Justice Reform has also been working diligently to make sure right-leaning lawmakers, leaders, and activists understand that expanding juvenile jurisdiction is consistent with longtime conservative commitments to personal responsibility and public safety.
I expect and trust that North Carolina will finally raise the age. But I must admit that my hope runs higher than that. South Carolina lawmakers passed their reform without a single dissenting vote. Can we let them show us up?
John Hood is chairman of the John Locke Foundation and appears on the talk show “NC SPIN.” You can follow him @JohnHoodNC.