By Jon Guze
In 2015, Chief Justice Mark Martin convened an independent commission to “evaluate the North Carolina judicial system and provide findings and recommendations.” Last year, the commission’s Criminal Investigation & Adjudication Committee released a report entitled, “Juvenile Reinvestment,” in which it announced that:
After careful review and with historic support of all stakeholders, the Committee recommends that North Carolina raise the age of juvenile court jurisdiction to include youthful offenders aged 16 and 17.
This is something my organization, the John Locke Foundation, has advocated for many years, and I was delighted by the announcement.
In support of the recommendation, the report presents a large body of factual findings that show, among other things, that minors in adult correctional institutions suffer alarmingly high rates of physical and sexual assault and have woefully inadequate access to educational and other age-specific programing. All of the report’s findings are important, but two of them seem to me to be decisive. The first of these is that recidivism rates are significantly lower when young offenders are dealt with through the juvenile system than when they are prosecuted and punished as adults. The second is that—primarily because recidivism rates will be lower—raising the age of juvenile jurisdiction is likely to reduce crime, promote public safety, and yield substantial economic benefits.
If the report has a fault, it is the way it deals with 16 and 17-year-olds who are charged with serious crimes. Under existing law, juveniles ages 13-15 who are charged with class A felonies are automatically transferred to adult jurisdiction, while juveniles ages 13-15 who are charged with other serious crimes may be transferred at the discretion of the court. Rather than simply leave this provision in place for the 16-17-year-olds who will now be charged as juveniles, the report recommends changing the rule to require automatic transfer for 16 and 17-year-olds, not just for class A felonies, but for B through E felonies as well. These are certainly serious crimes that merit severe punishment. However, precisely because they are so serious, reducing the rate of recidivism for young offenders who commit such crimes is particularly desirable. It seems unlikely, therefore, that automatically transferring all of them to adult jurisdiction strikes the right balance between providing adequate punishment, incapacitation, and deterrence on the one hand, and reducing recidivism on the other. Nevertheless, given that fewer than 3 percent of young offenders are charged with serious felonies, this is a minor quibble with what is in every other way a remarkable achievement.
By bringing all the relevant stake-holders together in support of this well-researched and well-reasoned proposal for raising the age of juvenile jurisdiction, the Criminal Investigation and Adjudication Committee has performed a valuable public service. I hope readers of this blog—and, indeed, everyone who cares about protecting children and reducing crime—will join me in urging the General Assembly to enact legislation implementing the Committee’s proposal.
Jon Guze is the Director of Legal Studies at The John Locke Foundation