By Michelle Zechmann, CEO of Haven House Services
Last year, North Carolina celebrated a tremendous legislative victory for our youth. After more than a decade of advocacy, the General Assembly passed ‘Raise the Age,’ allowing 16 and 17 year olds who commit misdemeanors or low level felonies to be served in the juvenile justice system instead of being tried as adults. Now comes the equally challenging task of implementing the new law by December 2019, which will nearly double the number of youth in the juvenile justice system.
As a professional who has worked with young people my entire career, I know first-hand how important the passage of ‘Raise the Age’ will be for the more than 8,000 youth who will be positively impacted by this legislation each year. ‘Raise the Age’ will not only allow youth to avoid an adult criminal conviction that follows them their entire lives (undermining their future chances for education and employment), it will provide these young people with developmentally appropriate services to support their restitution and future success as they transition to adulthood.
But our work is far from done with passage of ‘Raise the Age.’ We must now focus our efforts on ensuring effective implementation of this new policy. And that is no small matter as building the capacity of North Carolina’s juvenile justice system to support service provision to thousands of additional youth will take financial resources, intentional focus on community-based planning to expand needed services, and coordinated involvement from multiple stakeholders including law enforcement, schools, the courts, and community services providers.
The good news is we are building on an existing juvenile justice system that is nationally recognized as one of the strongest in the country. North Carolina has an evidence-based policy and practice framework that guides the juvenile justice system. We have a strong history of partnership and collaboration. And we have commitment from leadership across the system — from legislators to the Department of Public Safety to judges and community providers — to follow through with effective implementation of the bill.
As we move forward in implementing ‘Raise the Age’ and expanding the existing system, our decisions need to build on those strengths. During the planning phase of implementation, there is an opportunity for advocates and providers to hear what is happening and ask questions. A series of regional meetings being sponsored by the NC Association of Community Alternatives for Youth (NCACAY) are being held across the state beginning on February 6. At those meetings, DPS Deputy Secretary William Lassiter and others will share information about the transition and answer audience questions. Now is the time for us to make sure we plan for the changes ahead with intention and pragmatism.
Here are some of the questions that I believe should be asked at the upcoming regional meetings:
- The legislature set up the Juvenile Jurisdiction Advisory Committee to help ensure a successful implementation. What are the recommendations coming from that committee?
- The law talks about school/justice partnerships to reduce in-school arrests and suspensions; what is happening in this area?
- What will this look like in my community and how many additional kids should we expect? Are local law enforcement, the court system, community programs and juvenile justice beginning to plan for this?
- What type of best practice programming will be needed by community organizations?
- What type of funding will be needed to ensure that our community is able to give youth the support they need?
A thoughtful and rigorous approach to this transition will ensure that we fulfill the promise of ‘Raise the Age’ and help our youth find a path to lifelong success.