Despite challenges posed by the pandemic, NC’s new juvenile justice law is making a difference
A state juvenile justice committee plans to ask the General Assembly for $6.7 million to accommodate more teens in the Raise the Age program.
A year ago, state lawmakers approved Raise the Age, which allows 16- and 17-year-olds to be tried in juvenile court for most first-time offenses. The money would be used to serve more teens, whose numbers are expected to rise after the pandemic, according to an interim report by the committee.
Billy Lassiter, deputy secretary for juvenile justice at the Department of Public Safety, said that while awaiting trial — sometimes for months – these adolescents can have access to education and mental health services through juvenile detention centers. There, they can receive more individualized care because the staff-to-resident ratio is typically 1-to 8, compared with 1-to-30 in jails.
“These kids are much better served in our juvenile detention facilities than they would be in a jail,” Lassiter said.
The Juvenile Justice Division has added 133 state and county slots for teen offenders since the implementation of Raise the Age, according to DPS’s year-end data summary.
Lassiter said two reasons underlie the multi-million dollar request. First, the General Assembly appropriated $6.7 million to-date, only half of the funding the Juvenile Justice Advisory Committee originally requested. Second, a different bill, HB 593, allowed youths to be housed in juvenile detention facilities after having been transferred to adult courts.
Another factor to consider is that the first year of Raise the Age implementation coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic, Lassiter said.
Raise the Age helped reduce the number of young people in adult prisons, which have been overcrowded during the pandemic.
In 2019, the division estimated it would admit 8,000 teens the following year; but only 4,107 entered the system between Dec 1, 2019, and Nov 30, 2020.
The total of 12,349 complaints received for Raise the Age youths reached only 56% of projections, pre-pandemic.
However, this drop is almost solely attributable to a decrease of low-level felony and misdemeanor complaints, which declined by more than half. School closures account for a large portion of the decrease, as the rate of school referrals to the juvenile justice system plummeted to just 16% of total complaints from 45% in 2019, the report stated.
After the pandemic, the number of teens whom the Juvenile Justice Division is expected to serve will likely increase, Lassiter said.
There were more 16- and 17-year-olds facing higher-level felonies: 612, which exceeded the projection of 530.The higher-than-expected rate of teens juveniles actually detained, coupled with lengthier stays because of slow court proceedings, tightened the amount of available space in the juvenile detention facilities.
Lassiter said that his agency is working with lawmakers to introduce legislation that enacts four of the committee’s suggestions, including one that raises the maximum age a young person can stay at a juvenile detention center to 21.
This proposal could potentially influence prosecutors’ decisions on whether to send a case back to juvenile court. If the maximum age for juveniles is younger than 21, some district attorneys might choose to try a case in adult court, for fear that a teen couldn’t navigate the juvenile system before aging out.
The state also plans to propose raising the minimum age to 12 that a child can be charged in juvenile court. Currently, children as young as 6 can be tried in this court, the youngest age in the country.
Chris Suggs, a member of the Governor’s Crime Commission is a 20-year-old UNC-Chapel Hill student from Kinston. Suggs first served on the commission at age 16 and has advocated for his peers, particularly young Black males, who constitute a disproportionate share of the youths in jail.
Suggs said Raise the Age has been expanding opportunities that didn’t exist for his friends and classmates. Before 2019, they “maybe were involved in a larceny or fighting schools, but … were prosecuted as an adult because of that mistake,” Suggs said. “That possible bad behavior that spurred the moment … has the permanent record on your life.”