“The Devil is in the details” should be the theme of the Legislative Research Commission’s Age of Juvenile Offender Committee. This committee is meeting to discuss what to do about last year’s “Raise the Age” bill. HB632/S506 was proposed in 2011, and would allow 16- and 17-year-old offenders charged with misdemeanors to be placed into the juvenile justice system, rather than be tried as adults. But there are still too many questions about the details of this bill to put it before the full General Assembly.
First, consider the type of crimes that might be involved. There are four levels of misdemeanors. Class A1 misdemeanors are considered the most severe and can be punishable by up to 150 days of jail time. Examples of A1 misdemeanors are assault by pointing a gun and assault inflicting serious injury. If someone has committed a serious offense that is punishable by jail time, shouldn’t he or she be treated as an adult?
The North Carolina Sheriffs’ Association strongly opposes legislation that would raise the juvenile age from 16 to 18. One issue is the cost. Should North Carolina spend hundreds of millions of dollars to expand the current juvenile justice system?
For example, the Association urges legislators to consider that new facilities would need to be built to house older offenders to separate them from younger kids. Should a 12-year-old who has committed a minor misdemeanor be sharing quarters with a six-foot-tall, 200-pound 17-year-old who has pulled a gun on someone or beaten someone up?
Also, older inmates often have a bad influence on the younger ones. Should facilities now be training grounds for younger children to learn criminal behavior from more experienced criminals?
The Sheriff’s Association also points to how changing the law could make the system less effective. Because younger offenders go into the juvenile justice process, gang members often get juveniles to do their dirty work. The juveniles are told to do certain crimes for initiation into the gang or to even make sure older members do not receive a harsh penalty. If the age is raised to 18 then the gangs will be able to use more physically developed individuals to commit assault crimes without having to face harsher penalties. Should raising the age give gangs the opportunity to use more juveniles to commit crimes?
Criminal justice professionals know that many young criminals start down a career criminal path by the age of 12 or 13. By the time they reach 16 or 17 the juvenile system will do them no good. In criminal justice academia it is widely discussed that when someone is caught in a crime they only admit to 25 percent of the crimes that they commit.
When young criminals are that age and committing numerous offenses, then shouldn’t their responsibility level be that of an adult?
The committee is meeting again in December to discuss issues that need to be addressed. Just a few of the potential pitfalls are listed above. All the details of letting 17- and 18-year-olds go into the juvenile justice system, and the resulting questions, are what need to be addressed in the Committee meeting.