By Rose Hoban
When Johnathan Brunson was 14 years old, he was caught stealing CDs, CD players and some batteries. He was hanging out with his cousins, who both had criminal records, and he felt like he needed to fit in.
“I was known as a ‘good guy.’ They didn’t put me on a lot of things they could have,” Brunson remembers. “But I did that to show I could do something. I may not sell drugs, but I can steal a CD.”
“The peer pressure was incredible,” he said.
Brunson’s two cousins are now in jail, one on murder charges, one for dealing drugs. But when Brunson was caught, he had an advocate in his mother, who made him write a letter to the chief of police in his town.
“She told me, ‘You need to convince him that you’re going somewhere in your future. I’m not gonna sit there and tell him, you tell him,’” Brunson recalled. “If it wasn’t for her, I’d have gotten something on my record.”
Instead, Brunson is now a social worker who works with young men like he was. But if he had had a criminal conviction, he might not have gotten into college or grad school.
That’s why he was in Raleigh last week, to advocate for young people like he was.
Currently, North Carolina is one of only two states in the country that charges all 16- and 17-year-olds who get caught committing a crime in the adult system, and that record stays with them for the rest of their lives – impeding their progress when they attempt to apply for student loans, jobs, even the military.
But a bill making its way through the House attempts to “raise the age” for juveniles to be charged in the adult system. Instead of being charged, tried and convicted in the adult system, they would stay in the juvenile system and have their records sealed when they reach majority.
Tough on crime, smart on crime
Currently, when a 16- or 17-year-old appears in a courtroom, judges do have some discretion about their fates. Judge Marcia Morey, chief district court judge in Durham, told a House judiciary committee last week that she sees a variety of kids.
Morey read from one of her recent dockets:
“Vicky, 16, open-container, trespass in a public park; Boyd, 16, urinating in public; Nikita, shoplifting a $19 pair of sunglasses; David, simple possession of marijuana …”
She also had cases of resisting an officer, disorderly conduct and stealing a pair of jeans from Belk.
“If it’s a first offender, I tell them community service, court costs, $430, come back and see me in six months, we’ll see if it can be dismissed,” Morey told the committee. “You think they can come up with $430? No. It’ll come out of the parents’ pocket. If not, they’ll be looking at probation.
“They’re looking at $1,000 over the next 12 months to take care of their misdemeanor charge.”
“Is that the best way to handle these first-offender, nonviolent 16- and 17-year-olds?” Morey asked, adding that the kids can end up with these offenses on their records for the remainder of their lives.
Bill sponsor Rep. Marilyn Avila (R-Raleigh) noted that not every judge is willing to work with young offenders the way Morey does, and that some district attorneys want to try every young offender as an adult.
“What we want to do is standardize that so there’s not any difference in how a child is treated in Wake County and in Buncombe County,” Avila said. “We want all of our kids operating under the same rules and the same opportunities.”
Brunson said he witnesses the discrepancy now with the youth he serves in Tarboro. He works as a social worker with young, at-risk kids, many with mental health problems.
“I saw a young white girl who was stealing cars for a long time, and she was slapped on a wrist,” Brunson said.
“And right behind her was a young black boy who was stealing, and the judge threw the book at him … and the mother was crying, and I thought, ‘Wow.’”
Avila reported that the rate of juvenile crime in the state has dropped 37 percent over the past 10 years.
“Seventy-nine percent of them are misdemeanors, 18 percent are felonies and the remainder are serious felonies,” she said. “Those are the ones we hear about.”
“Many kids who get tried and convicted as adults end up in adult facilities where there’s little treatment. What treatment there is is not age appropriate,” Avila said. “But with the juvenile system, the treatment is age appropriate.”
But lobbyists from the N.C. Sheriffs’ Association and the N.C. Association of Police Chiefs expressed opposition to the bill because of the cost of caring for young offenders.
“We respectfully ask that the resources be provided to implement change in policy,” said Fred Baggett, legislative counsel for the police chiefs.
He said if lawmakers change the law, they need to provide money for programs, people and facilities to deal with a new influx of young people into the juvenile-justice system.
Avila reminded the committee that, in the long run, changing the age would save the state money, noting that studies have shown that kids remanded to the juvenile system are less likely to re-offend than young people who end up in the adult system.
An outside consultant, the Vera Institute of Justice, was hired in 2010 to do a cost-benefit analysis of raising the age of adult offense. Vera found at the time that, “The plan to raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction in North Carolina will cost taxpayers $70.9 million a year and that this annually reoccurring investment will generate $123.1 million in reoccurring benefits to youth, victims, and taxpayers over the long term.”
The consultant also estimated that treatment in a juvenile center is about $181.90 per day, or about $66,000 per year.
According to the state Department of Public Safety, it costs an average of $27,747 to house an adult prisoner for a year.
Avila said other states that have raised the age have ended up saving more money than they expected.
“Connecticut helped us understand what happens, in particular,” Avila said. “They raised the age for misdemeanor and felony, one year at a time. It wasn’t as expensive as they thought, and the problems they anticipated didn’t show up.”
“This issue has been studied numerous times,” said Brandy Bynum of Action for Children North Carolina.
She told the committee that the bill had been studied in 2006 by the Senate’s policy advisory committee and by the Governor’s Crime Commission in 2007; that between 2009 and 2011, the Youth Accountability Task force met for 18 months and recommended raising the age; and that last year, a legislative committee recommended that North Carolina raise the age, at least for misdemeanants.
A young person from another state with misdemeanors can come to North Carolina and apply to one of our universities or for a job, Bynum said, without those crimes being on their permanent records, because in other states they’ve been charged as juveniles and their records are sealed by the time they’re 18 years old.
“Our own young person in North Carolina would attempt to do the same thing and would be barred from higher-educational opportunities and access to employment,” she said.
Bynum described raising the age as an economic issue.
“We’re talking about thousands of young people, since 1919, who are burdened with adult criminal-justice records who are not paying taxes here in our state,” she said. “So [either] we’re creating taxpayers, or we’re creating tax burdens.”
A bill that would have raised the age made it through the House of Representatives last year but was too late to make it through the Senate before the General Assembly recessed. At that point, all the unfinished legislation died.
Bynum said she hoped the bill could make it at least through the House before the end of the long session in a few weeks. That way, it would stay alive to go through the Senate next year during the short session.
The bill now goes to an appropriations committee before it can go to the floor for a vote.
Cover image of the old Orange County Courthouse by Leslie Looper, courtesy flickr creative commons