As North Carolina prepares for Raise the Age legislation to go into full effect in December, youth crime in Wayne County continues to steadily decline.

North Carolina legislators passed Raise the Age in 2017, as part of the state budget, which places kids ages 16 and 17 who are charged with nonviolent crimes into the juvenile justice system rather than the adult justice system.

The bill is set to go into effect on Dec. 1, but certain steps are already in place to address youth crime in Wayne County.

“It’s a new program,” said Wayne County Sheriff Larry Pierce. “It’s something we’re all going to have to learn how to adapt within.

“But, I think in the end it’s going to be a benefit to the juveniles to not have that criminal history in their background.”

The Juvenile Justice Reinvestment Act, which includes Raise the Age, is partially based on research showing the area of children’s brains that determines decision making and the ability to make judgments is not biologically developed until age 24 or 25, said District Court Judge Beth Heath.

“When you’re trying to make a decision about your behavior, physically and biologically, you may not have the ability to make good decisions,” Heath said.

Juveniles facing high class felonies, such as murder, will now start out in the juvenile system, but will transfer to the adult system, Heath said. The bill will also address issues youths with criminal histories often face after graduating from high school and begin applying for colleges, jobs and even the military.

“We have found out that, in some situations, even though the records were supposedly expunged or purged, that when they went to apply for jobs or colleges, sometimes those records were still there,” Pierce said. “And, I think, as we have seen some more of the diversion, it has helped those youth who would have possibly been criminally charged in the past.”

North Carolina is the last state in the country to raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction for nonviolent crimes to 18, according to the North Carolina Department of Public Safety.

YOUTH CRIME IN WAYNE COUNTY

Numbers provided by the Wayne County Sheriff’s Office and Goldsboro Police Department show a steady decrease in the number of youths ages 16 and 17 committing criminal offenses during the last three years.

According to Goldsboro Police Chief Mike West, the Goldsboro Police Department arrested 43 juveniles ages 16 to 17 in 2018, and only 14 arrests have taken place as of May 3.

The Wayne County Sheriff’s Office arrested 129 juveniles ages 16 to 17 in 2017; 87 juveniles were arrested in 2018; and 34 were arrested this year, as of May 8, according to Jamie Sturgill, Wayne County Sheriff’s Office crime analyst and records supervisor. Of those arrests, each year the highest reported criminal offense for juveniles ages 16 to 17 was order for arrest for failure to appear. Other common offenses included assault, breaking and entering, larceny and drug violations.

“It’s (youth crime) definitely been an issue — it always will be,” Pierce said. “You have to realize that many kids don’t have a structured home life, and so what they have in their life for structure is school.

“Of course, during the summer, most of them don’t have school. We see an uptick in crime at the juvenile level during the summertime. That’s still always going to be a problem until we can come up with a solution for a more structured home life or community involvement.”

SCHOOL-TO-PRISON PIPELINE

With raising the juvenile jurisdiction age to 18, North Carolina counties are also implementing partnerships with schools, health organizations, sheriff’s offices and more to address the school-to-prison pipeline.

Kids that came into contact with the criminal justice system are much more likely not to graduate from high school and ultimately, as adults, end up in the prison system, Heath said.

“It put our kids at a disadvantage in a global world that we live in now, going back to not being able to make good decisions, got in a bad decision or made a poor judgment and all of a sudden they’re not competitive in a global world,” Heath said.

To reverse that trend, Wayne County is in the process of implementing the school to justice partnership agreement, which directly addresses the school-to-prison pipeline, Heath said. Some of aspects of the partnership are already in place, she said.

Each county will implement its own partnership agreement that identifies certain acts that, if the acts happen at school and the person has no prior offenses, then the behaviors are addressed with certain responses, Heath said.

For example, low level drug offenses occurring at school might evoke a response from a teacher, administrator or school resource officer, and, through the partnership, other services to address the drug behavior are then provided, Heath said. The other services could include teen court, peer mediation, substance abuse evaluation and treatment or mental health evaluation and treatment.

“We tried to tailor responses to what the acts are, not just arbitrary things,” Heath said. “We’re able to do that in the juvenile system and the school to justice partnership agreement.”

With the partnership agreement and delinquency court, parents are also required to participate in the process, Heath said. This is different from going through the adult justice system where parents are not required to go to with their child, and the child may only have to pay court costs and fines three months after the offense.

“Responses are immediate, which is important for young people,” Heath said. “Three or four months later, whoever they’re fighting with, they’re now back to being best friends with them and they don’t even remember why they’re there anymore.”

MORE STRUCTURE

The school to justice partnership also provides more structure for students who are adjudicated through juvenile court. Students are placed on probation, will meet with a juvenile court counselor who monitors their behavior and school, regular drug testing, if required, mental health evaluations and other services to address behavioral issues, Heath said.

Parents are required to participate through the adjudication process, and if they do not help their child or interfere, they could be held in contempt, Heath said.

“None of those things are going to be done on the adult side. In the adult court, you basically pay a fine, you pay court cost, you go on probation or you go to prison,” Heath said. “And if you’re on probation, pretty much all that involves is checking in with a probation officer once a month, you may get drug tested and you may have to get a job or stay in school, but they’re not going to be connecting and setting up all these services.”

When Raise the Age goes into full effect, Heath said the goal is that kids will learn how to make better decisions and behave differently. The school to justice partnership and raising the juvenile jurisdictional age to 18 seeks to address those behavioral issues and curtail youth crime.

“I’ve been here long enough to have them standing in front of me in court when they were 14 years old and 10 years later, they’ve been shot and killed,” Heath said. “I don’t believe that just sending everybody to jail fixes anything.

“I’ve never been one to give up on our kids.”