U.S. Senators Support “Raise the Age”

Just weeks after the NC House passed bipartisan legislation to “raise the age” of juvenile court jurisdiction to 17 for misdemeanor offenses (HB 725), US Senators Rand Paul (R-KY) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) have given NC a new incentive to enact this bill. According to this press release, Senators Paul and Booker have introduced the REDEEM (Record Expungement Designed to Enhance Employment) Act, which proposes major criminal justice reform by removing non-violent juvenile offenders from the adult criminal court system and improving employment opportunities for non-violent adult offenders.

A key provision of the bill encourages states to increase the age of criminal responsibility to 18 by offering those states a preference for federal community police grants. The REDEEM Act would also:

  • Create a process for adult, non-violent offenders to seal their criminal records;
  • Limit information available to employers via FBI criminal background checks;
  • Automatically expunge or seal juvenile records for non-violent offenses;
  • Restrict the use of solitary confinement for juveniles; and
  • Restore welfare benefits to low-level drug offenders who have served their time.

The bill’s sponsors have called it common sense legislation designed to reform a costly and “broken criminal justice system,” citing research, long advanced by “raise the age” proponents, which shows that rehabilitating youth in the juvenile justice system costs less, reduces recidivism, and removes barriers to employment caused by having an adult criminal record. In short, they claim it will save taxpayers money.

NC has twice studied the fiscal impact of raising its maximum juvenile court age, and reached the same conclusion. Currently, juveniles in NC are automatically prosecuted as adults starting at age 16. G.S. 7B-1604(a). In 2009, the Governor’s Crime Commission Juvenile Age Study reported that raising the age of criminal responsibility from 16 to 18 could result in a net benefit of approximately $7.1 million to the state. In 2011, that number was increased to $52.3 million in a report by the NC Youth Accountability Planning Task Force, which recommended prosecuting 16 and 17-year-old misdemeanants and low-level felons in juvenile court. The cost savings, according to both reports, would largely result from reduced recidivism, which eliminates future costs associated with youth “graduating” to the adult criminal system, and increased lifetime earnings for youth who will not have the burden of a criminal record. As a result, the Task Force concluded that because more youth will become law-abiding, productive citizens, rather than a hindrance to the state, the long term benefits of treating more kids in the juvenile justice system far outweigh the costs.

Yet, the Task Force also estimated that moving 16 and 17-year-olds to juvenile court would initially cost NC taxpayers approximately $70 million per year, an investment opponents say the state can’t afford right now. This article also cites opposition from some law enforcement groups as another reason why NC has yet to “raise the age” of juvenile court jurisdiction.

NC remains one of only two states in the nation that prosecute 16-year-olds in adult criminal court. NY is the other state with this distinction, but it has a “reverse waiver” law that permits a defendant to petition the court to be tried as a juvenile. Eight states send juveniles to criminal court at age 17, but the overwhelming majority of states (40 plus the District of Columbia) set their respective ages of criminal responsibility at age 18.

Illinois, one of the most recent states to “raise the age” to 18, has reported results that tend to support the reasoning behind the REDEEM Act. Three years ago, Illinois became the first state to increase its juvenile court jurisdiction to include 17-year-olds who commit misdemeanors only. However, in July 2013, the state passed a law to include all 17-year-olds in the juvenile court system upon finding the initial change was less costly than anticipated, did not overwhelm the juvenile justice system, and actually resulted in a decline in juvenile crime, as detailed in this report by the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission.

Although early reports show the REDEEM Act is unlikely to succeed this session, it is another example of the momentum gained by the “raise the age” campaign as more policymakers embrace new evidence that shows removing youth from the adult criminal system makes sense from an economic and public safety perspective. Of course, the campaign has also been propelled by a wave of U.S. Supreme Court decisions recognizing that children are categorically different from adults, which must be accounted for by the courts. See Miller v. Alabama, J.D.B. v. North Carolina, and Graham v. Florida.

As for the fate of HB 725, NC’s “raise the age” bill, it is also unlikely to obtain passage during the short session. Since it arrived at the Senate, the bill has been fatally marked – “Held in Senate Clerk’s Office” – which is likely its final resting place until the short session adjourns. However, if the REDEEM Act becomes law, it could help to “redeem” HB 725 next session.