DURHAM — Thousands of North Carolina teens avoided jail time and a criminal record in 2020 under the state's new Raise the Age law.
In its first year ending Dec. 1, the law kept 4,300 16-and 17-year-olds in the juvenile justice system who might otherwise have been prosecuted as adults, said William Lassiter, deputy secretary for the Juvenile Justice section of the state Department of Public Safety.
Before, those teens would have gone straight into the adult system, possibly shouldering them with a criminal record that could hinder future job, housing and financial-aid prospects.
The law, officially known as the Juvenile Justice Reinvestment Act, gives North Carolina teens an additional year or two to take advantage of juvenile justice services that can help them prepare for adulthood and challenges like homelessness and raising their own children.
The protective shield of the juvenile justice system, which typically keeps the juvenile equivalent of adult charges and convictions secret, has been offered to 16- and 17-year-olds in other states for years. North Carolina was one of the last states to adopt the change.
For decades, efforts to adopt the change were defeated. Some sheriffs and prosecutors argued the juvenile-justice system was inadequately funded to take on more teenagers. But advocates pushed through the change by focusing on teens who committed lower level crimes.
Now that it is in place, the new law gives young people hope, Lassiter said, and finally recognizes that adolescent brains are still developing.
"We still have accountability, but it doesn't hold that child accountable for the rest of their life," he said.
Rehabilitation vs. punishment
The new law pulled 16- and 17-year-olds accused of misdemeanors and low-level felonies like larcenies, break-ins and other non-violent crimes, from the adult system into the juvenile justice system, which focuses on rehabilitation.
Nisha Williams, an attorney and chair of the Durham County Juvenile Crime Prevention Council, said the shift in experience for young people, which used to involve being taken to a jail with adults, is dramatic.
"The atmosphere of the jail is about punishment; it is about detention separation and isolation," she said.
Teens charged with higher-level felonies are automatically transferred to adult court, but can be sent to juvenile court if court officials agree. Teens who have been charged as adults also remain in the adult system. About 560 16- and 17-year-olds were moved to adult court under those requirements, Lassiter said.
"(The law) is a most definite win for young people in the state," said Patricia Cardoso, chief operating officer at Haven House Services, a Raleigh agency that serves court-involved and other youth.
Agencies are studying this age group and customizing services, Cardoso said. Haven House developed a program that focuses on career options and identifying challenges like homelessness that some teens face when they turn 18.
"Many of these kids are already parents themselves," she said.
$43 million more
North Carolina's Juvenile Justice division has about 1,800 employees and a roughly $170 million budget. As Raise the Age was implemented, it received an additional $43 million, which added 244 employees and expanded its ability to serve more young people.
The change, when successful, saves taxpayers in the long run by sending youth on a path that doesn't involve the adult system in the future, Lassiter said.
In the juvenile justice system, cases start with a complaint being filed against a youth. Court counselors then determine whether the complaint should be dismissed, taken to a judge, or deferred if the youth participates in a community program and completes other promised actions.
About 24% of those 4,300 16- and 17-year-olds were diverted to community programs before appearing before a judge in 2020. That's up from nearly 19% last year.
Family involvement is also key to the juvenile justice process.
It requires parents to be part of the process, instead of teens sometimes being left to navigate the adult system by themselves.
"Mom and dad have to come to court with the kid," Lassiter said. "We work with the whole family ... to make sure that the household itself is set up for success for this child to be successful moving forward."
In addition to Raise the Age, another law, House Bill 593, took effect in August that required youth under 18 who don't qualify for juvenile jurisdiction to still be housed in juvenile detention centers instead of jail until they turn 18.
Lassiter said most incarcerated youth under 18 in North Carolina are being housed in juvenile facilities, except for some who were in jail when the change went into effect.
With the addition of 16- and 17-year-olds, state officials projected a 64% increase in criminal complaints coming into the Juvenile Justice divisions compared to previous years.
School closings during the COVID-19 pandemic tampered the increase to 38%, according to numbers provided by the state. School-based complaints accounted for 45% of all complaints in 2019 but fell to just 16% in 2020.
The juvenile detention population increased by 59% since December 2019, from a daily average of 140 to 233.
Overall, statewide juvenile detention capacity has increased from 190 beds to 323 beds, 55% of which are state owned.
More time in detention
In addition to the increased numbers, the length of stay in juvenile facilities is also increasing.
In September 2019 the average stay in a juvenile facility was 16.2 days. In 2020, it was 25.2. The biggest reason is related to those youths charged with higher-level felonies, which can be violent, staying at juvenile facilities, Lassiter said.
Often before those cases officially enter the adult court system through a probable cause hearing or indictment, district attorneys will explore whether mitigating factors could send the cases to juvenile court, Lassiter said.
That process deadline has been extended from 15 days to 90 days.
At any time during the process, an attorney can expedite the case to adult court, where the youth might be eligible for a bail bond, Lassiter said. But more often attorneys and families are choosing for the child to stay in the juvenile justice system, which has a staff to youth ratio of 4-to-1 and tailors its services for them, he said.
Longer detention coupled with reduced contact with others and related stress during the pandemic is affecting kids' mental health, Cardoso said.
"We do have a therapist in juvenile detention who is noting kids with more significant mental health services," she said. "It is still something to watch out for.
Juvenile complaints have also shifted in the pandemic, Lassiter said.
Crimes against people are down while property crimes like thefts are up, because people are struggling. Charges that involve people, such as disorderly conduct at school or fighting at school, are down since most schools are closed.
"We are seeing a lot of juveniles that are trying to find resources for their families," Lassiter said.
They are turning to taking small items, including firearms that can easily be sold on the street, he said.
Officials have seen an almost 150% increase in young people facing firearm charges, he said, and hope to roll out programs next year that target the issue with education and intervention.