In North Carolina, a 16- or 17-year-old can’t vote, join the military or buy beer.
But if he or she gets arrested and charged with a crime, they will be treated as an adult in the criminal justice system.
Rep. Sarah Stevens, R-90, who sits on two committees tasked with determining what, if any, upgrades are needed within the state’s justice system, thinks it’s likely the General Assembly will move forward with raising the juvenile age from under 16 to under 18.
In the juvenile justice system, parents are involved in the process, the records are kept sealed, and the emphasis is on diversion and rehabilitation.
If the age is raised, 16- and 17-year-olds, or “youthful offenders,” convicted of a crime won’t be in prison or jail with adults.
They won’t have a public criminal record making it more difficult to find employment, receive education funding or join the military — in essence making it more difficult to stay away from crime and become a contributing member of society.
Whether that’s a good idea or not depends on who you ask.
“The devil is in the details,” Stevens said. “It depends on how (the law is) written. We have a lot of kids creating some very dangerous situations,” such as murders, home invasions, drug trafficking and gang activity.
“These are kids you don’t want in juvenile court,” she said.
Chief Justice commission recommends change
The North Carolina Commission on the Administration of Law and Justice (NCCALJ), released a report in July that included a 24 page appendix detailing their recommendation that the juvenile age be raised.
“A substantial body of evidence suggests that both youthful offenders and society benefit when persons under 18 years old are treated in the juvenile justice system rather than the criminal justice system,” the report states, citing data that shows treating youthful offenders as adults results in higher rates of recidivism than when treated in the juvenile system.
“This, raising the age is likely to result in lower recidivism, less crime and increased safety.”
The report also noted that a small percentage of youthful offenders are convicted of violent felonies — 3.3 percent of the total in 2014.
The committee’s recommendations, which is available at www.nccalj.org, include:
• Raising the juvenile age to 17 years old for all crimes except traffic offenses and class A through E felonies.
• Maintaining an existing procedure to transfer juveniles to adult superior court.
• Full funding to implement the recommended changes
“Notwithstanding recommendations from two-legislatively mandated studies of the issue, positive experiences in other states that have raised the age, and two cost-benefit studies showing that the raising the age would benefit the state economically, North Carolina has yet to take action on this issue,” the report states.
Sheriff opposes age change
The NCCALJ recommendation reflects widespread support for raising the age, both from the cross-section of stakeholders that comprise the committee as well as various organizations throughout the state.
Surry County Sheriff Graham Atkinson is not among those who support the change.
“The first problem is as it stands now, the whole justice system is drastically undermanned and underfunded,” he said. Adding a whole group of juveniles that would meet that (juvenile) classification is not going to help that situation.”
From the sheriff’s point of view, youthful offenders are capable of very adult, and very serious, crimes, and diversion attempts through the juvenile system are often unsuccessful.
“To treat them as something other than adults is wrong for the victims and wrong for society,” he said. “In a Polyanna world,” rehabilitation would work, but “in reality, if they are to that degree by that age, the likelihood of their being anything but a violent criminal is almost non-existent.”
The fact that North Carolina is one of two states to prosecute youthful offenders as adults is not a good reason to change our laws, Atkinson said.
“Are they really doing it correctly or is it really better for us to keep the system we have?” he asked.
Surry County Jail Supervisor Lt. Randy Shelton discussed some of the complications involved with housing youthful offenders, who must sleep out of the view of adult offenders and be provided an extra milk at mealtimes.
“It raises issues due to how overcrowded we are,” Shelton said. “Sometimes we have to move inmates around. Good or bad, I guess I’m used to it.”
Shelton shared one phenomenon he’s observed in the jail: “You put a 16-year-0ld in here with a 30-year-old they’re going to learn stuff,” he said. “There are some religious talks and stuff like that, but most of the conversations are not positive for society.”
Local program helps youthful offenders
District Attorney Ricky Bowman supports raising the juvenile age, noting that Judicial District 17-B has demonstrated commitment to positive outcomes for youthful offenders.
“Long ago, we established the Deferred Prosecution Program for the youth in Surry and Stokes County so that young people with no prior criminal history, that were charged with non-violent misdemeanors and some low level felonies, might avoid a criminal conviction on their permanent criminal history,” Bowman said.
“On many occasions, we have dismissed criminal charges against juveniles, either after completing a deferred prosecution or after meeting specified conditions,” he said which allows the juvenile to have a clean criminal record.
Bowman said a clean record will “help the juvenile when trying to join the military or when applying to and competing for enrollment in college, seeking employment, or taking mandatory licensing tests for careers.”
Cases are evaluated on an individual basis, said the district attorney, adding, “We will hold our youth accountable for their bad or wrong choices. But, we all make mistakes, especially our children. I want to do all we can to help our youth be successful in life.”
Reach Terri Flagg at 415-4734.