Weekly Briefing

Lowering the age?!

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State House proposal flies in the face of research on juvenile justice

For years now, advocates on behalf of children in North Carolina have been attempting to change an antiquated state law that makes North Carolina a complete outlier in its treatment of children accused of crime. The modernizing proposal – which is commonly referred to by the shorthand nickname “Raise the Age” – would end North Carolina’s status as one of only two states in the union to automatically treat 16 and 17 year old kids as adults in the criminal justice system. The other – New York – is moving to change its law.

Right now, in North Carolina, a 16 year old high school sophomore is presumed by state law to be an adult when he or she is accused of a crime and when he or she is sent to jail. Such children can only be sent back to the juvenile justice system under certain conditions. In 48 other states, the presumption works the other way: children are presumed to be children and only bound over to the adult system in limited circumstances involving very serious crimes or factual situations.

In recent years, bolstered by bipartisan political support and overwhelming support from scientists, psychiatrists, social workers (and even many law enforcement officers and adult corrections officials), the Raise the Age movement has been gaining significant steam. Indeed, the main objection from state lawmakers has been limited primarily to fiscal policy concerns – i.e. the potential fiscal impact that such a change would place on the juvenile justice by adding a large influx of troubled kids – rather than substantive ones. Virtually everyone agrees that, given the scientific consensus on the status of the teenage brain, treating 16 and 17 years olds as adults is both unfair and, as a practical matter counter-productive – especially since sentencing 16 and 17 year olds to the adult prison system rarely produces a good result.

Going the wrong way

Leave it to the folks driving the 2013 session of the North Carolina General Assembly, however, to find a way to buck modernity, progress, science and common sense. Last week, three conservative state Representatives – John Faircloth of High Point, Stephen Ross of Burlington and House Speaker Pro Tem Paul Stam of Apex – introduced a measure that flies in the face of the Raise the Age movement. Here’s how:

Amazing as it may seem, current law isn’t just limited to treating 16 and 17 year-olds as adults; it actually allows it for 13, 14 and 15 year-olds (i.e. seventh, eighth and ninth graders) accused of felonies as well. The one safeguard in the statute is that the transfer of such children to the adult system can only happen with the approval of a Superior Court judge. The judge can issue such an order upon motion of the prosecutor, the defense or simply upon his or her own motion. For very serious (Class A) felonies, however, the transfer is actually automatic.

But wait, here’s where it gets crazier: The current already draconian law is not sufficiently tough for Representatives Faircloth, Ross and Stam. Under their proposal – a bill that’s scheduled to be heard in a House Judiciary Committee this morning – the transfer to adult court for 13, 14 and 15 year olds for other felonies (Class B1 through E) will no longer be at the discretion of the judge. Instead, it will beat the discretion of the prosecutor.

This is not a joke.

If the Faircloth/Ross/Stam bill is enacted into law, North Carolina will literally be placing the future of thousands of young children at the almost complete discretion of the only professionals in this entire drama with a direct and vested interest in treating them as adults: prosecuting attorneys.

This is not a slam on prosecutors; it’s just a simple statement of fact. For better or worse, most prosecutors perceive it as their duty to put as many people in jail for as long a period as possible. To make such a group the sole arbiter of what’s the best course for kids accused of crime is simply a matter of empowering a group that has an obvious conflict of interest. It’s as if the legislature were to enact a law giving personal injury lawyers the right to establish the rules and circumstances under which they would try their cases.

Saying “no” to science and common sense

Even if one sets aside the simple matter of fairness in the justice system, however, the downsides surrounding the treatment of juveniles in the adult justice system – even for 16 and 17 year-olds – are simply too compelling to ignore.

Consider the following from the Raise the Age campaign website put together by the advocates at Action for Children North Carolina:

Putting kids in the adult system DOES NOT increase public safety:

  • According to the national Centers for Disease Control, kids who go through the adult system are re-arrested, reconvicted, re-incarcerated and have their probation revoked at higher rates than other adult offenders.
  • Sixteen and 17-year-olds sentenced to adult probation or adult prison end up with higher re-arrest rates than all child offenders ages 13 to 21.

Raising the age means big savings in the long term

  • The policy change will generate $97.9 million in long-term benefits among 16- and 17-year-olds arrested during a given 12-month period and an additional $21.7 million in taxpayers benefit.
  • Kids handled in the juvenile justice system repeat offend far less than youth dealt with in the adult system. Less crime means more public savings, higher state GDP and more tax revenue for the state.
  • Raising the age in Connecticut returned $3 in benefit for every $1 spent. Even including construction costs, the return was about $1 for every $1 spent.

Evidence-based juvenile programs are highly cost-effective

  • National cost-benefit analyses show that developmentally appropriate intervention in the lives of troubled kids is one of the most cost-effective uses of public money.
  • Crime costs the state untold millions in lost productivity, losses to victims, incarceration costs and more.
  • Programs that place kids on a path to becoming contributing adults return those millions to the public.

Raising the age means helping North Carolinians get jobs

  • North Carolina kids who commit non-violent, low-level crimes at 16- and 17-years-old may have to carry that mark with them for the rest of their lives. That makes it hard to straighten up and be productive.
  • On the other hand, 16- and 17-year-olds who commit non-violent, low-level crimes in 48 other states don’t have to carry that burden.
  • Same low-level crimes. Different states. North Carolinians lose – unless we Raise the Age.

Add to all of these points the fact that the human brain is one of the last parts of the human body to develop – especially the region that controls many of the abilities that govern goal-oriented, “rational” decision-making, such as long-term planning, impulse control, insight and judgment – and it becomes clear that it rarely makes sense to treat 16 and 17 year-olds as adults (much less 13, 14 and 15 year-olds!)

Holding out hope

While the future of the regressive “Lower the Age” bill is uncertain at this point, it seems a sure thing that the sponsors and prosecutors will be show up at the General Assembly today with plenty of horror stories about big, scary looking kids who did (or were accused) of very bad things. Let’s hope lawmakers put aside the emotions that such efforts will raise and stick to science, common sense and the facts. In the 2013 session, that would be a welcome departure.