State policymakers received some guidance Thursday on how they can reduce crime, save taxpayers’ money, and make it more likely that troubled teenagers have a chance to turn their lives around.
Reports from Action from North Carolina and the Center for Disease Control call on the state to stop automatically sending 16 and 17 year olds accused of a crime to the adult criminal justice system and instead treat them in the juvenile system.
North Carolina is one of only three states that treat offenders under 18 as adults and there’s a reason why most states have ended the practice. The CDC study finds that 16 and 17 year olds punished in the adult system are far more likely to commit crimes when they are released that teens sent to the juvenile system.
Rep. Alice Bordsen introduced legislation in the General Assembly last session that would treat 16 and 17 year old offenders as juveniles, but give judges the discretion to transfer individual cases to adult court after a hearing. Bordsen’s bill came out of a recommendation from the North Carolina Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission.
The proposal received a lot of attention last summer, but not much legislative action due to strong opposition from prosecutors and the Sheriffs Association, opposition which scared some lawmakers wary of being labeled soft on crime.
That political fear stalled Borden’s bill, despite earlier studies that also found that treating 16 and 17 year olds in the juvenile system make it less likely that they will commit more crimes.
The Action for Children report cites research showing that adolescence is a critical time for the development of the brain, particularly in the frontal lobes. The evidence was one of the factors that convinced the U.S. Supreme Court to ban the execution for people younger than 18, reasoning that logically should be applied to how the state treats all juvenile offenders.
One of the authors of the CDC report appeared a Crucial Conversation luncheon in Raleigh Thursday to discuss the report. State Secretary of George Sweat was in the audience and agreed that it makes sense to join most other states and stop sending 16 and 17 year olds into adult courts.
Sweat also said that the General Assembly continues to underfund his department, making it difficult to provide the services that kids currently in the system need and deserve.
Ironically, the same lawmakers listening to the district attorney’s irrational arguments against raising the age for access to the juvenile system and then talking tough on crime are doing the opposite, making it more likely that youth will commit more crimes.
Refusing to adequately fund juvenile justice programs have the same effect, robbing the department of the opportunity to help many of the kids it houses. The spokesman for the Sheriffs Association recently said that no one has talked about where the new funding would come from to expand the capacity of the juvenile justice system.
But the worry about the cost is disingenuous at best. Prosecutors and much of the law enforcement community pushed last session for an ill-advised bill to crack down on gangs by toughening laws and lengthening sentences for gang-related crime.
The gang bill would cost the state $60 million and the fact that nobody talked about how to pay for it didn’t give any of the bills supporters pause. Neither did evidence that the gang proposals won’t work according to national research and prosecutors in states that have tried it.
In the case of Bordsen’s proposal, the costs are not so clear. The juvenile justice system does need more funding, but the state would save money in the long run by treating 16 and 17 year olds as juveniles instead of locking them up in the adult system and then paying to incarcerate them again when they commit more crimes.
Tough on crime in this case may be a catchy short term campaign slogan, but it is disastrous public policy in the long run, costing far more in dollars and lives.