A Q&A with key players ahead of today’s House vote
House lawmakers are expected to vote today on House Bill 280, a bill that would raise the age of juvenile prosecution from 16 and 17 years old to 18 years old.
The bill has been vetted by both the House Judiciary I Committee and the House Appropriations Committee, and the questions below were posed by lawmakers during those meetings. In an effort to help inform lawmakers (and all other interested parties) who may still be looking for basic information prior to today’s scheduled vote, Rep. Chuck McGrady, the bill sponsor, William Lassiter, Deputy Secretary for Juvenile Justice at the Department of Public Safety, and Sharon Gladwell, spokeswoman for the Administrative Office of the Courts participated in this Q&A.
What impact would this change have on the delivery of education services to the youth who are impacted?
Lassiter: All juveniles committed to Juvenile Justice facilities are required to participate in educational services, compared to juveniles within the adult system who are not. Forty-two percent of juvenile complaints come from schools. This policy will provide better alternatives to the current practice of criminalizing student discipline problems. The State Superintendent of North Carolina, the Chair of the North Carolina State Board of Education and the North Carolina School Superintendents Association have all supported raise the age.
Gladwell: HB 280 does not directly impact the delivery of education services to youth. However, the School-Justice Partnership in Section 4 will reduce school-based referrals to Juvenile Courts. Fewer school-based referrals will decrease juvenile petitions and delinquency adjudications that can have a negative impact on a juvenile’s educational services if a student is suspended or expelled due to the offense.
If 49 other states have done this, is there anything unique about North Carolina’s juveniles or the crimes that they’ve committed that we should be the only state not to have raised the age?
Rep. McGrady: Not that I’m aware of. I think the question [is] more about the money. At the point in time when we started [to] consider changing [the law], we were in the midst of a recession.
Lassiter: No, there is nothing unique about North Carolina. “Raise the Age” is a policy initiative that has been passed in 49 other states consistent with best practice findings and research, as well as cost-benefit analysis that shows long-term savings. Recently, similar policies passed in South Carolina and Louisiana with little to no objection.
Will district attorneys have authority to transfer 16 and 17 year olds to adult court for violent crimes?
Lassiter: Yes. They will have transfer authority upon review by a judge on any felonies, and automatic transfer authority for A-E felonies, which are the most violent and serious crimes.
Gladwell: Section 1.5 [of the law] provides for automatic transfer from juvenile court to superior court for 16-17 year old juveniles by indictment or upon a finding of probable cause that the juvenile committed a violent crime that constitutes a Class A-E felony. Class F-I felonies and misdemeanors follow existing transfer law for 13-15 year olds, which requires a finding of probable cause pursuant to G.S. 7B-2202 and a transfer hearing pursuant to G.S. 7B-2203.
Are we funding additional district attorneys that juvenile cases require?
Lassiter: Yes. There are 23.5 additional positions in HB 280’s fiscal note.
In addition, in the Senate budget, an additional 37 assistant district attorney positions will support existing needs.
Gladwell: Please see the Legislative Fiscal Note for HB 280, page 32-33.
If we do vote to do this, where would the money come from? What department would you take it from?
Rep. McGrady: The Senate budget adds more [district attorneys], I understand, but those positions are not specifically focused on addressing Raise the Age. We are not specifically funding any positions at this time because the effective date is in 2019 in the House bill and 2020 in the House budget.
Why does the bill include low-level felonies?
Rep. McGrady: Because the Commission’s report made that recommendation.
Lassiter: The Chief Justice’s Commission on the Administration of Law and Justice recommended including low level felonies. The Commission’s recommendations are based off of evidence and research. And, the evidence and research is clear that serving juveniles in the juvenile justice system is more effective at reducing recidivism and preventing future crimes.
Gladwell: [To see the recommendation] Refer to pages 7-8 of the final report of the N.C. Commission on the Administration of Law and Justice.
If judges have discretion to transfer juvenile cases to adult court, will that create inconsistency across the state?
Rep. McGrady: No, because as was discussed in committee there are already criteria that a judge must use in making that decision.
Lassiter: The Department researched this question for the Commission and found that in the majority of cases where the court was petitioned to transfer a case to adult court, these transfers were granted. The law is very clear on what grounds a juvenile should be and should not be transferred to adult court. This should remove inconsistency across the state.
Gladwell: [She pointed to the transfer hearing statute, which can be found here.]
What will happen to juveniles involved in gang activity under this bill?
Lassiter: Rep. Allen McNeill ran an amendment to specifically address gang activity among juveniles. The amendment requires the department to assess juveniles for gang activity, and increases the dispositional level [increases their sentence] of juveniles involved in gang related crimes. The juvenile justice system works with juveniles who are gang-involved every day and has tremendous success in getting these juveniles out of the gang culture. Unlike the adult system, where 16 and 17 year olds who are incarcerated are not allowed to participate in gang programming, all juveniles in youth development centers are offered this opportunity.
Gladwell: Part VI of HB 280 addresses Juvenile Gang Suppression. If a juvenile is adjudicated of an offense that the court finds was committed as part of criminal gang activity as defined by the Act, the juvenile will receive an enhanced disposition that is one level higher for the class of offense and delinquency history level.
What additional facilities would be needed to raise the age?
Rep. McGrady: One of the differences of opinion between legislative staff and the Department is over what additional facilities would be needed. Mr. Lassiter can speak for the Department and the fiscal note shows what legislative staff thought.
Lassiter: Fiscal Research is recommending a 96-bed facility. The Department is recommending a 60-bed facility, with the possible addition of a second 60-bed facility as population trends warrant.
The cost associated with building two 60-bed facilities is comparable to building one 96-bed facility.
To reduce capital costs to the State, the Department is working with counties who have expressed an interest in providing the needed detention center beds to implement this policy. This saves the state a lot of capital costs.