The juvenile justice system in North Carolina is preparing for a major restructuring, and Wayne County officials are getting ready.
Dozens of Wayne County judicial, law enforcement and education leaders came together at the Maxwell Center Thursday to discuss impending "Raise the Age" legislation which will place 16- and 17-year olds accused of crimes into the juvenile court system instead of the adult system.
William L. Lassiter, deputy secretary for the N.C. Department of Public Safety Division of Juvenile Justice, presented information about the legislation, along with some of its predicted outcomes. The Raise the Age bill, formally known as the Juvenile Justice Reinvestment Act, was included in the 2017 state budget, and expands the juvenile court system to cover crimes committed by 16- and 17-year-olds. The goal of the bill, Lassiter said, is to reduce the numbers of juveniles getting permanent criminal records for relatively minor offenses, such as getting into a fight at school without hurting anyone or disrupting class.
This is important, Lassiter said, because teens in the 16-17 age range are at a time in their cognitive development when they are statistically more prone to impulsivity and risk-taking, which is actually necessary behavior for kids their age.
"The peak of a kids willingness to take on risk is when they're 16 or 17 years old, there's no more time in your life that you're more willing to take on risk," Lassiter said. "It's a normal part of human development, because that's when your child is thinking about moving out of your house and going to college or getting a job. If they were not willing to take on risks, they would live in your house forever."
That impulsivity and risk-taking behavior, however, accounts for many criminal referrals in the 16-17 age range. Under prior legislation, those 16 years and older were considered "adults" in the criminal court system, and courts were routinely inundated with charges of simple affray -- a fight in which no one was hurt -- or disorderly conduct in class.
Juveniles who went through the adult court system showed higher rates of recidivism and lower employment rates, and cost the state and local governments responsible for them thousands of dollars, Lassiter said.
By expanding the juvenile justice system, those same kids are more likely to avoid trouble in the future. Data from the state showed a 7.5-percent decrease in recidivism for teens adjudicated in the juvenile system versus the adult system. The data also showed that youth prosecuted in the adult system recidivate 12.6 percent more often then the general population.
Those are just a few of the reasons why removing youth from the adult justice system is the right thing to do, Lassiter said.
Of course, some crimes will necessitate the use of the adult system. For the most serious crimes, offenders will still be prosecuted through the adult system. However, Lassiter said, those crimes make up such a small slice of what juveniles are charged for that it made sense to find a way to help those who commit lesser acts.
"Only 3 percent are your 'A' through 'E' felonies, which are the most serious and violent offenses that you can commit in our society. Those are the murders, the rapes, the assault with a dangerous weapon, those types of categories," he said. "So very few of the actual offenses that were filed in North Carolina last year had anything to do with a very serious or violent offense."
Lassiter said that the idea of the bill was to help the other 97 percent of juvenile offenders who had "made a stupid mistake" as opposed to those who had committed serious, violent offenses.
Juvenile crime in North Carolina has been on a steady decline for around a decade, Lassiter said. In Wayne County, juvenile delinquent complaints dropped to 228 in 2016, nearly a third of the 618 complaints recorded in 2012.