Steal a pair of sneakers in North Carolina the day after you turn 16 and you’ll be charged as an adult. You may not go to jail, but you’ll have an adult criminal record that stays with you the rest of your life. It’s been that way for 96 years – ever since the Juvenile Court Statute of 1919 became state law.
A growing number of juvenile justice observers and youth advocates think that it’s a bad thing to treat 16- and 17-year-olds as adult offenders. They point to research that indicates children who commit crimes have not matured and do not realize a permanent criminal record can have life-changing limitations. They say the state should help young people with problems, not punish them. They also point to current research that indicates charging those youths as juveniles will save North Carolina’s taxpayers millions of dollars in the long term.
Other states have long since changed their laws and treat teens under 18 as juveniles, leaving North Carolina and New York as the only two states in the country that automatically prosecute a 16-year-old charged with any crime in the adult court system.
For decades, efforts by North Carolina lawmakers to raise the age were defeated. That continued until last year when the House – with bipartisan support – passed 77-33 a bill that called for 16- and 17-year-olds charged with misdemeanor crimes such as shoplifting, disorderly conduct or writing a worthless check to be tried in juvenile court. Teens charged with felonies would still go through the adult court system. But the measure stalled in the Senate and was never debated.
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Rep. Duane Hall, a Wake County Democrat, thinks a new version of the proposal, House Bill 399, formally titled The Youth Offenders Rehabilitation Act, has a better chance in the Senate this time.
“We have the votes in the overall Senate body,” he said. “The question is whether we can get it out of committee. That was the problem last time.” Hall and his Wake County colleague, Republican Rep. Marilyn Avila, the lead sponsor of the bill, are looking for senators on the Republican side who can help them.
“When you see issues like this, people’s political differences can be suppressed in order to be adult with how we work with our young kids, particularly those who get into trouble with the law,” Avila said.
The measure faces formidable opposition from two statewide law enforcement organizations that say it would be too costly.
Eddie Caldwell, executive vice president and general counsel of the N.C. Sheriffs’ Association, said the organization is not against raising the age but opposes the bill because there is a dearth of needed resources, people and programs to help 16- and 17-year-olds.
“The juvenile justice system is already inadequately funded to provide services to juveniles under the age of 16,” Caldwell said. “To add two more age groups to an already overburdened system is not logical.”
The bill, now under review by a House judiciary committee, calls for a phased-in approach that would establish an advisory committee to oversee implementation of the plan in all 100 counties. It would create a civil citation program “to ensure swift and appropriate consequences” for adolescents who commit minor crimes while providing “efficient and innovative alternatives” instead of locking them up.
The measure, if passed into law, would go into effect in January 2020.
Marked for life
Avila said the state should help its troubled adolescents instead of relying on policies that “encourage” failure.
She pointed to research that indicates that adolescents have not developed the maturity of judgment necessary to weigh the potential outcomes in the decision-making process. She called the bill “personal.”
“I remember when my children were that age,” Avila said. “There’s no way I would turn my kids loose on the world, and they had role models and resources. When I look at the kids who end up in the criminal justice system, they haven’t had that. They’re losing a leg up, and we know what happens.”
Hall pointed out that one criminal conviction in adult court will follow a teen through life, limiting his ability to obtain financial aid for college, enlist in the military, get housing and jobs, including work in trades that require state licensing. And, he said, it puts them at a disadvantage when competing with young people from other states who may have been convicted of the same crime in juvenile courts where their indiscretions are sealed.
“Let’s say you have a Virginia student and a North Carolina student both competing for the same job or applying to the same college, with all things being equal except the North Carolina student has a criminal record for a misdemeanor,” Hall said. “It’s not fair for our kids to have to compete against that. It’s devastating for the young man who wrote a $20 bad check to Domino’s or the girl that was shoplifting.”
Support for raising the age is starting to resonate with judges, attorneys, members of law enforcement and other elected officials.
“It’s the right thing to to,”said Frank Palombo, a retired chief of police with the New Bern Police Department, who served as a member of the policy advisory committee that helped draft the current bill.
“I’m not excusing bad conduct, and people need to be held accountable for the actions they took. I would not support the bill if it included felonies,” he said. “But we’re talking about kids who made mistakes when they were young. A lot of us made the same mistakes when we were young, and by the grace of God it did not have that effect on us.”
A new future
Three years ago, Anthony James Dennis Eaborn was 17 when he was charged with inappropriately touching his adopted, 11-year-old sister in Durham.
His story illustrates how the juvenile system can give teens a chance to turn their lives around in a way the adult court won’t.
Eaborn, now 20, is ashamed of the incident. “I’d rather not speak about that,” he said. “It’s one of those embarrassing charges.”
A Wake prosecutor offered Eaborn a choice: He could plead guilty to a misdemeanor and the case would be tried in juvenile court, but if he pleaded not guilty then the case would be tried in adult court on felony charges.
Eaborn, at the urging of his mother, chose to plead guilty in juvenile court because he was afraid of what would happen to him if he was sentenced to an adult prison.
“I’m not very big, and I’m short for my age,” said Eaborn, who weighs about 140 pounds. “I never would have survived in prison.”
As a first-time offender in an adult court, there’s a chance Eaborn would not have been sentenced to prison. Still, a criminal conviction for sexual assault and registering as a sex offender would have placed considerable limitations on his future.
Eaborn was placed into the foster care system at age 2 because his mother was addicted to crack cocaine and his father was in prison for murder. He landed in four different foster homes in Asheville and suffered physical and sexual abuse at two of the homes. Eaborn was 6 when he was adopted by a Durham couple.
When Eaborn went to court, he was sentenced to one year probation and ordered to enroll in Second Round, a youth treatment boxing program at Haven House in Raleigh. He was also ordered to undergo therapy for a year.
“Boxing played a big role,” he said. “It made me focus more on the future, what I wanted to do in life – to do my schoolwork, to better myself in life.”
Today, Eaborn is a full-time student at Wake Technical Community College. He works nights as a server at IHOP.
Opponents of the bill question how much money will be needed to help teens like Eaborn enter the juvenile court system, and where that money will come from when each year 22,000 16- and 17-year-olds in the state commit their first misdemeanor offense. Last year, 31,560 complaints were filed against juveniles 15 and younger.
Caldwell, with the sheriffs’ association, said the juvenile system is underfunded. Once the system has the money it needs to help children 15 and younger turn their lives around, “then we can have discussions about 16- and 17-year-olds,” he said.
He added that the juvenile justice programs for the older teens would have to be different than those for younger children, and housing would need to be separate.
“None of that is provided for in this bill,” he said.
Peg Dorer, director of the N.C. Conference of District Attorneys, echoed Caldwell’s concerns.
“The projected costs do not factor in the exorbitant additional costs that the change would make to the courts,” Dorer said. “A case that currently takes three minutes in adult court will take 54 minutes in juvenile court. This will completely overwhelm our system.”
Dorer said that according to a fiscal note attached to a previous bill, keeping the cases of 16- and 17-year-olds in juvenile court would cost $16.5 million in the first year, $55.5 million in the second year and thereafter, with another $900,000 in capital costs.
Avila countered the criticism, saying opponents were “jacking up the price” because they assume the measure calls for building new facilities. “These kinds of crimes don’t end up in incarceration,” she said.
David Guice, the state’s juvenile justice commissioner, and William “Billy” Lassiter, deputy commissioner, both support the bill.
They say from a resource standpoint the timing is right because of the 2012 merger of the department of correction, crime control and public safety with the department of juvenile justice and delinquency prevention.
“We are able to manage resources and use resources today in a way that they didn’t have before,” Guice said.
Lassiter said more than half of the youths in the state’s juvenile system are already over the age of 15. “They may have committed the offense when they were 15 and a half,” Lassiter said. “By the time they come to court, they’re actually 16.”
Guice and Lassiter say there is no doubt there would be a significant impact on the juvenile justice system if legislators vote to raise the age: a need to increase the number of juvenile court counselors, juvenile detention beds and community-based alternatives. Still, because the bill deals only with misdemeanors, they say the impact on youth development centers would be minimal.
A 2011 cost-benefit analysis by the Vera Institute of Justice, an independent, nonprofit nonpartisan research center in New York, found that North Carolina could generate $52 million in annual net benefits if legislators raised the juvenile age.
Mark Levin, author of a 2013 report on juvenile justice for the John Locke Foundation, said if the age was raised the state would benefit from an increased rate of employment and earnings from young people who are not saddled with a lifetime adult criminal record.
“It makes more sense to put the resources on those who still have a long future, who are still malleable and whose brains are still developing,” he said. “Seventy percent of the 16- and 17-year-olds never re-offend. There’s a good chance to break the cycle of crime. But a juvenile who becomes a career criminal costs society $2 million to $3 million over the course of their lives.”
Levin said that the adult court is not going to pay attention to underlying issues that may be going on in the adolescent’s home, nor does it provide mental health treatment and anger management therapy that could nip delinquent behavior in the bud.
“The adult system is not going to do that,” Levin said. “You pay fines, show up for your meetings with your probation officer and submit to testing for drugs. The adult system is a surveillance type of model, and the juvenile system is a service type of model.”
Carmen Daugherty, policy director with the Campaign for Youth Justice in Washington, D.C., said there are other troubling issues when children enter the adult criminal system.
Daugherty cited a 2007 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that said teenagers charged as adults are 34 times more likely to be rearrested, usually for more violent crimes, than their counterparts on the juvenile side.
Moreover, young people behind bars even for 48 hours are 36 times more likely to commit suicide and 18 times more likely to be raped, according to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Eaborn recognizes the juvenile treatment has given him a second chance and a voice.
“I got my frustrations out and my anger,” he said about the Second Round, where he has a 4-1 boxing record in the lightweight division while competing against youth pugilists from all over the United States.
Eaborn receives about $1,000 each year to attend college. He wants to transfer to UNC-Asheville after he earns an associate degree from Wake Tech. He figures that if he had been charged in adult court he would have been required to register with the state’s sex offender registry.
That’s all behind him now. In addition to college and work, Eaborn speaks at fundraisers on behalf of Haven House. He’s trying to get his driver’s license and wants to work full time at Haven House.
“I been doing stuff,” he said. “I been busy.”
How North Carolina stacks up
A 2012 report by the U.S. Department of Justice found that on a typical day North Carolina has more inmates under 18 in its adult jails than can be found in neighboring states. Here’s the numbers:
119 in North Carolina
93 in Georgia
32 in South Carolina
19 in Tennessee
3 in Virginia