When I first moved to North Carolina nine years ago, I remember being shocked when I learned that juvenile court jurisdiction ended at age 16 for all purposes and with no exceptions. This means that if your 16-year-old son or daughter were to intentionally push another kid in the hallway of a public school with a zero tolerance policy, the school resource officer (SRO) could bring assault charges against them in adult criminal court. I know because I have represented young people facing this very scenario.
It also means that the collateral consequences of a criminal charge and conviction are potentially borne by every 16 and 17 year old alleged to have violated a criminal offense — misdemeanor or felony — regardless of their criminal history, the nature of the injury or harm (if any), personal circumstances, etc. As you know, a criminal record makes it harder to get a job, to get accepted into college, to receive financial aid, to be licenced in such professions as nursing, and to become a naturalized citizen of the United States. 16 and 17 year olds held in adult prisons are more likely to be raped, assaulted, and to commit suicide than are adult offenders.
North Carolina is the only state in the country to have such harsh jurisdictional age caps. One other state ends juvenile court jurisdiction at age 16 — New York — which, unlike North Carolina, has mechanisms for “reverse waiver” or removal of a case from criminal court to juvenile court under specified circumstances. About ten states cap jurisdiction at 17, and the remainder — the vast majority — end it at 18. The numbers of teenagers impacted are significant — over 65K 16 and 17 year olds are processed in the criminal courts of North Carolina each year, about 26K of whom are only 16. Stats show that only four percent of this cohort are convicted annually of felonies against people, with the remainder being property crimes or misdemeanors.
I thought about all of this the other day when reading that Illinois raised the cap on its juvenile court jurisdiction from 17 to 18, thereby joining the majority. The governor and the bipartisan contingent that supported the bill recognized its value — that by giving original jurisdiction over all minors to the juvenile court, those who are amenable to its rehabilitative offerings will not be saddled with the burdens of criminal convictions and imprisonment with adults. Lawmakers also acknowledged that the change would bring significant cost savings in the long run, no small factor given the broken state of the economy and the overflowing numbers of those incarcerated.
The bill’s passage is the second step in a reform process in Illinois that began in 2010 when 17-year-olds charged with misdemeanors were moved from adult to juvenile courts. Earlier this year, the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission released a 2-year study of the impact of the misdemeanor change that found a decrease in the recidivism rate, and it recommended that Illinois join the other states that place 17-year-olds charged with felonies in juvenile court. Of course, this does not mean that those minors charged with serious offenses cannot be transferred to adult criminal court — only that all criminal cases against minors must originate in the juvenile forum. Connecticut has successfully raised the juvenile court age cap from 16 to 18 in recent years as well, also reducing recidivism rates.
Five years ago, I wrote an article on the history of the movement to raise the age of juvenile court jurisdiction in North Carolina. I researched the legislative history, looked at reams of old newspaper accounts, studies on adolescent development, commission reports and committee minutes from the various periods during the past century when attempts to raise the age had failed. The pattern was clear — with the powerful opposition of the sheriffs’ lobby and the backing of state prosecutors, few bills had ever made it out of committee. The arguments that the cost was too much, that the juvenile court system was already overloaded, and that the result would be a mere “slap on the wrist” to young offenders consistently prevailed in the General Assembly.
Yet, I was naively optimistic that progress would soon be made in my state. I joined other advocates in writing op-eds, appearing before state legislative commissions, serving on task-forces, and protesting at rallies. With each step forward, however, we’ve had at least two steps back. During the past year, I was heartened that even when our General Assembly is in the grips of conservatives bent on tearing down the little that’s left of the social safety net, there are still Republicans willing to sponsor yet another bill to raise the age — incrementally, of course, but even just moving 16 year old first-offenders charged with misdemeanors into the juvenile system would be a victory. Now the bill has “run out of steam,” and those in the know have shared that it doesn’t look like anything will happen with it during this legislative session. In other words, the pattern continues, and this time I’m a (small) part of the narrative of failure.
So, what have I learned? Making sausages is, apparently, nothing like making laws. In sausage making, there is generally only one person — the wurstmeister — who’s in charge of the business and makes all the decisions. Sausages are made according to a recipe that specifies the exact amount of pork, while the inedible parts are discarded. Everyone at the factory is committed to producing a good product, and they strive for uniformity. The bottom line? If I were a sausage maker, I’d be insulted by the comparison. As an advocate trying to bring about change, it only saddens me.
Your thoughts? Experiences with legislative reform (or with making sausages)? Please share in the comments.
This post also appears at PrawfsBlawg.