Lawmakers passed Raise the Age legislation in 2017 to change the age of juvenile jurisdiction in the state – North Carolina was the last in the nation to make the change – and after years of research, advocacy and waiting, the law goes into effect Dec. 1.
Earlier this month, legislators approved House Bill 1001, a $77 million implementation budget, allocating resources for new judges, assistant district attorneys and other officials within the North Carolina Department of Public Safety (DPS). It also sets aside some funds toward juvenile facilities and community-based and Juvenile Crime Prevention Council programs.
Whether or not that bill does enough to give Raise the Age a successful launch remains to be seen, but some officials say they’re relieved to have some funds in place before the law goes into effect.
“I think it is a good foundation,” Billy Lassiter, deputy secretary of DPS juvenile justice, told Policy Watch.
He added that lawmakers seemed open to adjusting funding over the next year if there are deficits identified along the way.
Lassiter sspent the past six weeks planning with Raise the Age managers from across the state, in the midst of new training programs for law enforcement, judges, magistrates and others affected.
DPS produced informational booklets for law enforcement officers, and prepped three new juvenile facilities — located in Madison, Mecklenburg and Granville counties — for Dec. 1.
Lassiter and Eric Zogry, of the N.C. Office of the Juvenile Defender, served on a state team making recommendations for Raise the Age’s implementation. They told Policy Watch they’re grateful the legislature funded community-based and Juvenile Crime Prevention Council programs.
“The whole idea is to invest in intervention and prevention,” Zogry said.
DPS partners with Juvenile Crime Prevention Councils in each county to galvanize community leaders.
The Councils’ responsibilities include reviewing the needs of at-risk juveniles, reviewing resources available to them, prioritizing community risk factors, increasing public awareness, and providing funds for treatment, counseling or rehabilitation services.
All 100 North Carolina counties have a Council, and it’s expected their community-based programming will be key to reducing recidivism and making Raise the Age a success.
Zogry also applauded lawmakers for funding a training and consulting position in his office that will work with attorneys in North Carolina assigned to juvenile justice cases. He said that person, who will likely work in the western part of the state, will allow the Office of the Juvenile Defender to provide more local training, engagement and support.
Zogry said his office emphasized training leading up to the Dec. 1 change in the law. They’ve put together a Raise the Age juvenile 101 training, hosted webinars and created materials for juvenile defenders, including a quick law guide for easy access.
“December 1 is just the beginning,” he said, adding work will continue long after preparing for the new system.
That’s true for every aspect of the system – HB 1001 is just a start, and despite the praise for having resources in place, not everyone believes it was the perfect measure to kick Raise the Age off.
House Democratic Leader Darren Jackson was the only lawmaker in either legislative chamber to vote against the bill. Jackson said last week that, while he supports the policy, lawmakers were partisan in their allocation of resources for new judges and assistant district attorneys.
For example, HB 1001 adds district court judges to eight judicial districts, including Pitt, Sampson, Duplin, Jones, Onslow, Robeson, Cabarrus, Union, Alexander, Iredell, Burke, Caldwell, Catawba and McDowell counties. None of the funding, he said, will go to counties most impacted. The bill also cuts one district court judge from Jackson’s Wake County district.
“It’s a great policy, but you’ve got to back it or it will be a disaster for the juvenile justice system,” Jackson said.
According to estimates from DPS’ Division of Juvenile Justice, Mecklenburg and Wake counties will likely see the most new juveniles entering the system.
Sen. Wiley Nickel, also a Wake County Democrat, voted for the bill, but issued a news release shortly after opposing its elimination of a district court judge in Wake.
“More people are moving to Wake County than any other county in North Carolina,” he wrote. “The population is exploding and the courts are backed up. There is a very real need to keep the current allocation of District Court judges in Wake County.
“This is just another example of Wake County continually being targeted for political punishment with extra funding going to Republican Counties.”
Sharon Gladwell, a spokesperson for the Administrative Office of the Courts, explained when the district court judge will be removed.
Wake County currently has 19 district court judgeships, she said. Two judgeships were to be added starting Jan. 1, 2021, bringing the total to 21. Since HB 1001 eliminated a judgeship, barring any future legislative action that number will return to 20, and only one judge will be added in 2021.
Gladwell added that, in the most recent published workload formula calculations from the AOC (based on filings through June 30, 2018), Wake County needs 18.83 district court judgeships. A new estimate is expected in the coming weeks.
“Note that the workload need calculations are based on the most recent three years of filings and do not include the likely shift of many filings from adult criminal filings to more time-consuming juvenile filings for 16- and 17-year-olds due to Raise the Age legislation,” she wrote in an email.
Jackson also pointed out that juvenile court will require judges to spend more time than on a typical adult case.
Ultimately, time will tell if HB 1001 went far enough. In the meantime, stakeholders have to work with what they’ve got.
“This is enough to get them on the right track,” said Rob Thompson, Deputy Director of NC Child, a nonprofit child advocacy organization based in Raleigh.
He said he didn’t have any specific concerns about the implementation bill, but he called Raise the Age long overdue.
“We just know that children and teenagers are served better in the juvenile justice system, and when they’re better served, we all are,” he said, adding the change will mean reduced recidivism rates and higher employment rates.
Gladwell said the AOC has been preparing for Raise the Age by providing legal guidance, best practices for managing criminal processes, information sessions throughout the state, updated court forms and other assistance to help prepare the Judicial Branch.
The Juvenile Justice Advisory Committee, a working panel that made Raise the Age recommendations to lawmakers, will also monitor implementation, reviewing dashboard with real-time information about Raise the Age so that it can be compared to projections. That committee’s work is slated to last through 2023.