In December 2019, North Carolina will become the final state in the United States to implement legislation known as, “Raise the Age.” These laws would mandate that the criminal justice system treat 16 and 17 year olds as juveniles rather than as adults in regards to arrests, trials and convictions.
In the past, 16 and 17 year olds were often prosecuted as adults, even for minor crimes, but Raise the Age will prevent this from occurring in most criminal situations.
The primary reasoning behind the program is the notion that those under the age of eighteen should not be incarcerated with adults, as it may increase their risk of falling victim to psychological trauma. It is also based on opportunities for juveniles to receive the same educational opportunities as their peers while incarcerated.
Although the legislation has been in process for years, the primary issue has been the money. Now, however, it seems that North Carolina has finally allocated the resources to implement the program. William Lassiter, the deputy commissioner of Juvenile Justice in the Division of Adult Correction and Juvenile Justice, believes that the 20,000 incarcerated juveniles that will be affected by this policy are well worth the additional funding that his department is pushing for.
“One of the things that we want to make sure that our legislative members understand is that just because some funding was in the budget does not mean that Raise the Age was fully funded in the budget,” said Lassiter to NC Policy Watch. “When I talked to a lot of members, they thought it was already fully funded, and I want to make sure that they understand that there’s still work to be done.”
Lassiter expressed faith in North Carolina lawmakers to prioritize funding the program fully, especially since the state is so far behind in its implementation of Raise the Age.
While the Juvenile Justice Department’s budget was nearly $130 million last year, Lessiter expressed the need to allocate nearly $44 million for the 2020 fiscal year, as well as a recommended funding of the courts’ existing deficiencies, which will cost an estimated $14 million per year. After pointing out that the juvenile justice system has saved a considerable amount of money through reducing the commitments and detention confinements of youth, Lassiter said, “we need to reinvest that money into the system to save this additional 20,000 kids.”
Entitled the “Juvenile Justice Reinvestment Act,” the Raise the Age legislation has also made additional suggestions, including the implementation of a “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard for prosecuting an offense as having been committed as part of criminal gang activity, allowing juveniles with previous motor vehicle misdemeanors (excluding DUIs) to be tried in the juvenile justice system, and declaring that juveniles housed in a youth detention facility for an A-G felony offense be relocated to a local prison upon turning 18.
Lassiter believes that once these final additions are established by North Carolina legislators in December, there is hope for the progression of the juvenile justice system.