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NC legislator and former judge: Rolling back juvenile justice reforms would be a mistake | Opinion

Charlotte Observer - 5/27/2024

North Carolina was the last state in the country to pass Raise the Age legislation. The law, which took effect five years ago, removed 16 and 17 year olds from the punitive adult criminal system and put all minors under the jurisdiction of juvenile courts.

The juvenile system provides teens with appropriate punishment but also provides mental health treatment and education, and it requires parental involvement. This is important because when the teenager is released from custody as most are, they must have the skills necessary to succeed.

Raise the Age (RTA) had broad bipartisan support. Studies on adolescent brain development, impulsivity, immaturity and the ability for young people to be redirected with proper services proved the juvenile court had much better outcomes and lowered recidivism.

The N.C. General Assembly is now threatening to roll back RTA with House Bill 834 — and reverse criminal justice reforms.

Under the proposed law, all 16 and 17 year olds charged with Class A-E felonies would be taken out of the juvenile system. Some examples: Class E felonies would include shooting into occupied property or burning a church building. An armed robbery where a weapon or firearm is used but no physical injury occurs is a Class D felony.

Under the new law, all juvenile law protections afforded minors would be erased. No juvenile judge would initially hear the case. Probable cause hearings in district court would be eliminated. There would be no confidentiality. There would be no requirement of notice to parents.

House Bill 834 is punitive and circumvents protections that should be afforded to youth by slamming them with immediate adult consequences and criminal records — even for those later found to be innocent. This can affect their ability to get employment and housing upon release.

Currently, N.C. law allows for youth who are as young as 13 to be transferred to Superior Court after a juvenile court judge determines there is probable cause that a youth has committed a violent crime. With the new law, 16 and 17 year olds are no longer defined as juveniles, not because of their age, but because of their alleged crime.

Data does show an uptick in violent juvenile crime rates since the pandemic, especially crimes involving guns. Teenagers are not the only ones to blame. Lawmakers share some responsibility. North has the most lax gun laws in the country. We don’t require safe storage of firearms. We fail to adequately fund the juvenile justice system. We don’t put social workers in every school and we accept a 30% statewide truancy rate from schools.

If we are serious about reversing the trend of rising juvenile crime, we must do all we can to protect and invest in our youth. Stricter gun safety laws are imperative. Safe storage of firearms in vehicles and in homes is imperative. We must adequately pay juvenile justice and social workers and do more to reconnect students to their schools.

For those who say the answer is to throw 16 and 17 year olds into the adult criminal system because it’s tough on crime, think again. The reality is that current law allows a juvenile offender to be confined in a locked Youth Development facility for twice as long as what an adult sentence would be for robbery or felony assault.

For 18 years I worked as a juvenile and adult criminal court judge. In juvenile court I had an array of resources at my disposal to hold youth accountable and help turn their lives around, especially for the many who had been abused and neglected or suffer disabilities. However, in the adult system the only option was punitive — jail, probation and fines — and the outcomes were stark. Juvenile court outcomes proved to be far better for the youth and public safety.

Smart on crime is more effective than tough on crime. Locking minors up as adults and throwing away the key will not produce good outcomes when they return to their communities. More than ever, now is the time to invest in our youth and not undo the good work of Raise the Age.

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