By Kelsey Tsipis
This story has been corrected to reflect that the bill passed through a House committee.
Amidst a chaotic budget debate, advocates of the “Raise the Age” campaign feel they’ve made significant progress this week in their efforts to allow 16- and 17-year-old offenders charged with lesser crimes to be put into the juvenile justice system, rather than be tried as adults.
The bill passed through a House judiciary committee and into appropriations this week with leadership from Rep. Marilyn Avila (R-Wake County).
“Even though the bill, as it’s drafted, doesn’t have any financial impact on the budget for three to four years, there is still concern with people who tend approach it like ‘Let’s do something, the money’s there,’” said Avila. “So what we’re going to be doing in the interim is look at the reason for the push backs that we’ve gotten, particularly from law enforcement, who say you’ve got a system that can’t handle who’s coming into it.”
Between now and January, Avila will lead an interim committee specifically focused on producing a state-wide study examining the status of the juvenile justice system in each county.
“In some cases it is a factor of money because a lot of their judicial areas have been cut, like the juvenile court counselors and others who do the direct interaction,” said Avila. “We also want evidence-based programs that work with not only the offender, but the family, that will get in and try to determine what is driving this and what can we do to help this person remain free of convictions and criminal activity so that they stay out of the system, stay in school and become a productive member of society.”
Advocates said having a study committee a great first step. This is the first time the proposal has been voted on in 20 years of pushing for the change.
“Once the Republicans realized that there was economic benefit we gained traction,” said Leslie Kellenberger, a volunteer for the Action for Children initiative. “We had to have the Republicans on board.”
“We have bipartisan support, and that is a very big deal for a piece of legislation like this,” said Brandy Bynum, from Action for Children.
Savings over time
The savings will not be immediate to the state, according to Avila. But over time it will be cost beneficial to keep juveniles out of intensive detention centers.
“What we’ll see over time is a bending of the costs curve – where if you keep these people out of the system, they’re not going to these very intensive detention centers,” said Avila. “So over time, you’ll see a leveling off of your expenses.”
North Carolina is currently one of only two states in the U.S. allowing all 16- and 17-year-olds who have committed misdemeanors and low-level felonies to be tried as adults.
“The key element is that kids from other states could come into North Carolina and apply to jobs and apply to schools and take it away from a potential North Carolina tax paying resident because our 16- and 17-year-olds continue to have these things on their records,” said Kellenberger.
“It needs to be an equal playing field.”