New Report on Juvenile Justice and the Juvenile Age

The district court judges are conferring this week at the Great Wolf Lodge in Concord. I don’t know if robes are allowed on waterslides, but I expect that the judges will be pretty focused on business in any event. Among other topics, reports indicate that they’ll be hearing from former Ohio Supreme Court Justice Evelyn Stratton about raising the juvenile age from 16 to 18. As many readers know, that idea has been around a long time, and North Carolina is one of only two states that set the juvenile age at 16.

Coincidentally, a group called Campaign for Youth Justice released a report last week about juvenile justice reforms. (The press release is here and the full report is here.) It asserts that “[o]ver the past eight years, twenty-three states have enacted forty pieces of legislation to reduce the prosecution of youth in adult criminal courts and end the placement of youth in adult jails and prisons.” Specifically, the report notes that both Illinois and Massachusetts have recently raised their juvenile cutoffs from 17 to 18 years old.

Do the changes noted by the report signal coming change in North Carolina? The report certainly suggests that there is momentum for further reform. As it pertains to North Carolina, the report highlighted the changes to the sentencing laws made in response to Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. __, 132 S.Ct. 2455 (2012), which held that “mandatory life without parole for those under the age of 18 at the time of their crimes violates the Eighth Amendment[].” Shortly after Miller, the General Assembly enacted S.L. 2012-148, creating new G.S. 15A-1476 et seq. (allowing, and in some cases requiring, a sentence of life with the possibility of parole after 25 years for defendants who were under 18 at the time they committed first-degree murder).

I don’t attach much significance to the fact that the General Assembly made a change that was constitutionally mandated. Nor is reform in other states necessarily a harbinger of change in North Carolina. But there is certainly continued interest in the juvenile age issue among advocates (as the report itself shows) and among influential court actors (as the judges’ conference agenda indicates). Another legislative session convenes in May, so stay tuned.