LUMBERTON — Raising the age at which some offenders in North Carolina are considered adults would require programs in Robeson County to beef up, but advocates say the change would save the state money, reduce court caseloads and help teens become productive adults in the long term.
North Carolina and New York are the only states that prosecute 16- and 17-year-olds in adult criminal court. There is a push in North Carolina to raise that threshold to 18 for all crimes except violent felonies and traffic offenses. This month, the N.C. Commission on the Administration of Law & Justice is holding statewide public hearings on how to improve North Carolina’s courts, including the prospect of raising the juvenile age.
Raising the juvenile age is also a goal of the North Carolina Department of Public Safety.
“We think that the juvenile justice system is custom-built for that age population, so it would have the right services for the right age at the right time,” William Lassiter, deputy director of juvenile justice for DPS said during the Juvenile Crime Prevention Council of Robeson and Scotland counties’ June legislative breakfast. “The juvenile justice system tends to be much more responsive, the sanctions tend to be much more immediate and the services tend to be much more immediate.”
According to DPS records, there is one 16-year-old and one 17-year-old serving time in prison in Robeson County. Another 28 Robeson County 16- and 17-year-olds are probation.
During a presentation to representatives of local law enforcement and juvenile justice agencies, Lassiter cited research that shows critical decision-making skills aren’t fully developed until a person is in their 20s. As they get older, teenagers think more about their futures and the consequences of their actions, he said.
“Right now, if you’re 16 years old you may end up in a program with a 50-year-old sitting right beside you,” Lassiter said. “There’s no way that those two people are in the same mindset and trying to change those two individuals at the same time is very difficult.”
Jim Barbee, executive director of Robeson County Teen Court and Youth Services, agrees that the juvenile justice system is better suited for 16- and 17-year-olds. His organization already serves some offenders older than 15 in its efforts to divert teens from District Court and a damaging criminal record.
“My whole team and the board of directors are in support of raising the age,” he said.
According to Lassiter, raising the juvenile age would be costly up front because its more expensive to work with juveniles; the juvenile system is more hands-on, with counseling and other treatment built-in. But over time, he says, the change would save the state money as recidivism rates are reduced, expenses from housing inmates in adult prisons are saved and juveniles kept out of the prison system are able to grow into productive adults. One cost-benefit analysis shows that raising the age would ultimately save North Carolina $70 million per year.
“Having the aged raised to 18 keeps our future citizens of the community taxpayers and not a tax burden,” said Barbee.
The added population would likely require Teen Court to increase its hours. The organization has been operating part-time, serving about 50 to 60 individuals per year. At full-time, Teen Court and its ancillary counseling and support programs reached 140 to 150 teens per year.
“It would require us to expand our scope of services but it would allow us to definitely provide better services for the population versus them just getting a slap on the wrist,” he said. “… They’d probably get more consequences in Teen Court.”
Through Teen Court, first-time offenders can plead guilty to misdemeanor charges and their cases will be pulled out of the Juvenile and District Court systems and their charges dismissed. Referrals can come from courts, school resource officers, school administrators and the Department of Juvenile Justice.
Defendants’ cases are heard by a jury of their peers, made up of volunteers and previous offenders serving jury duty as part of the sanctions handed down in their own cases. Teens also serve as the lawyers, while an adult judge takes the bench. Barbee said taking on older teens would mean revisiting the sanctions the jury is able to choose from during trial. Other sanctions include decision-making classes and reparations.
“I think with 16, 17, 18 year-olds we would have to increase those because it would allow better impact,” he said. “… Anytime you increase duration of service and intensity, you always see better results.”
According to Lassiter, juvenile crime has been on the decline statewide for the past six years, largely because of programs like Robeson County Teen Court, which Lassiter said the state hopes to replicate elsewhere, and other local programs funded by the Juvenile Crime Prevention Council.
Chief District Court Judge J. Stanley Carmical doesn’t foresee a drastic change in Robeson County courts if the juvenile age were raised. Some adult court cases would be shifted to juvenile court, but the overall number wouldn’t change, he said.
“I really do think the biggest impact may be in the number of juvenile court counselors that are necessary to screen and supervise the cases,” he said.
Some additional court sessions may be needed. Juvenile court is held in Robeson County about five days each month. The District Attorney’s Office already actively looks for cases where a 16- or 17-year-old facing a minor charge could do community serve and have the charge dismissed, he said.
In Carmical’s experience, most Robeson 16- and 17-year-olds who end up in court don’t need to be treated as adults. Many end up in the court system for violations at school — like fighting or making threats — that in the past would have led to suspensions rather than criminal charges.
“Most of these young people that come into adult court now haven’t committed horrendous offenses,” Carmical said. ” … When they come into adult court, the main thing they look is frightened. They look bewildered. Something happened at the high school and all of a sudden they’re standing in adult criminal court with judges, lawyers, DA’s and a lot of times they’re overwhelmed by it.”
Carmical agrees that in some cases, those teens could be better served by the juvenile justice system. They should still be held accountable for their actions, he said, but in a way that can keep them from re-committing and keep a conviction from following them “like a newfound shadow.”
“In juvenile court, we’ve got an opportunity to hopefully intervene in a positive way,” he said. “This age change is going to happen. It may not happen this year, but it’s going to happen.”
Sarah Willets can be reached at 910-816-1974 or on Twitter @Sarah_Willets.