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Second chance: More than 160 local teens kept out of adult prisons with Raise the Age law
Times News - 4/7/2021
Apr. 7—More than 160 teens have been kept out of adult prisons in Henderson, McDowell and Polk counties since the implementation of a law in December 2019 that raised the age at which juveniles can be charged as adults.
Before the law, 16- and 17-year-olds facing nonviolent charges could be charged as adults and sent to adult prisons.
One of the 161 teens who avoided adult prison due to the change, a 17-year-old Henderson County resident, sees it as his second chance.
The teen, whose name and charge are not being used by the Times-News because he was adjudicated as a juvenile, will graduate from high school a year early and has taken college classes.
That's a big difference from where he was last year when he was getting Ds and Fs in school. He would have been tried as an adult if the Juvenile Justice Reinvestment Act, known as the Raise the Age law, hadn't been in place.
Programs were created after the passage of the law to get teens the help they need — whether it be educational, medical or counseling — to get on the right path toward a successful future.
"I'd be in a real pickle if it wasn't for the programs," he said.
Legislators agreed that offering these programs, instead of sending teens to adult prison, could decrease recidivism and save the state money long-term.
One of the local offerings is Blue Ridge Literacy Council's Youth Literacy Program, which the Henderson County teen participated in as well as a culinary arts class. Tutors work one-on-one with teens on reading and comprehension.
"Literacy helped me a lot on time management and reading and writing, too," he said. "Culinary helped me with being able to follow directions in a specific order instead of doing it how I want to."
He used to hate to read, but now he enjoys reading manga and fantasy books. He asks his guardian to buy him books when they're at the store. When he finished the Youth Literacy Program, she bought him a "Naruto" book series, which he finished in four days.
"This was a very good success story, but he had to put forth the effort, so I'm glad that he was given that chance," his guardian said.
Not only have his grades improved, but he's more confident and independent, she added.
"I've seen a lot more confidence because he wouldn't even talk with his teachers or ask for help," she said. "Reading is very, very important to these children because they've got to understand what they're going to need as an adult."
Why raise the age?
North Carolina was the last state in the country to raise the age that juveniles can be charged as adults.
Years of research, including discussions with other states about how they've implemented programs, and failed bills led to the passage of the law.
"If you can change the course of a young adult's life at 14 or 15 or 16 and keep them out of the criminal justice system and they don't become habitual criminals, long-term you're going to not just do the right thing for that adult but it's going to make financial sense," said former N.C. Rep. Chuck McGrady, who co-sponsored the 2017 Raise the Age bill.
The law applies to nonviolent crimes, excluding traffic violations and 16- and 17-year-olds who have already been tried and convicted in criminal court before.
"It allows for those kids to have hope for their future," said said N.C. Department of Public Safety Juvenile Justice Deputy Secretary William Lassiter. "Sometimes teenagers make a stupid decision and unfortunately that stupid decision was affecting them for the rest of their lives."
Those mistakes caused problems with getting jobs, applying for financial aid and scholarships for college and finding housing, he said.
"They were having to check that box that says they have a criminal record and that was very detrimental," Lassiter said.
Juvenile court records are kept private by law, whereas adult records are public. Now, older teens can stay in the juvenile justice system and be referred to programs or sentenced to a juvenile detention center rather than adult prison.
Research shows the brain doesn't fully develop until age 25, and that key development happens between the ages of 15 and 18, including impulse control and complex decision-making skills, Lassiter said.
"Statistically, illiteracy is linked to high rates of incarceration especially with young people," said Katrina McGuire, Blue Ridge Literacy Council executive director.
"It's not just about reading, but it's comprehending — to understand that you're breaking the law," she said. "We just assume that people know right from wrong, but if you're not literate, you may not know right from wrong to the extent that we all know it and understand it."
Law enforcement concerns
Raise the Age was enacted Dec. 1, 2019 with bipartisan sponsorship and support. There was a delay in implementation to allow time for the development of programs and for the General Assembly to work out funding since the new law came with a hefty price tag.
Law enforcement had, in general, been against raising the age, according to McGrady. They were concerned the law would pass with no funding to back it and localities would be left to foot the bill for programs and increased caseloads, he said.
While the General Assembly funded half of the $13.4 million projected for 300 new juvenile detention beds, the other half, plus millions more, is still needed for law enforcement and court staffing, according to the Juvenile Jurisdiction Advisory Committee'sJanuary 2021 report.
During that nearly two years, 16- and 17-year-olds were charged as adults. The Second Chance Act, which the General Assembly passed last summer, gives those teens a chance at expungement.
Misdemeanor and some felony convictions, excluding traffic violations and offenses that require sex offender registration, committed after the passage of the new law and before Dec. 1, 2019 can be expunged by petition after any active sentence, probation and post-release sentences have been completed if there are no outstanding restitution orders, according to the N.C. Second Chance Alliance.
Several goals were reached within the first year of implementation, according to the advisory committee, including: availability of training resources, implementation of age-appropriate programming, expansion of detention center capacities and more.
In 2020, the Juvenile Justice System's District 29 (Henderson, McDowell and Polk counties) had 322 juveniles with a total of 637 charges. Of those charges, 255 were lodged against 134 teens ages 16 or 17 at the time of offense.
From Jan. 1 through Feb. 28 of this year, 27 16- and 17-year-olds entered the juvenile system on 49 charges.
"I'm very proud of what we did," McGrady said of the law. "I'm most proud of the fact that we didn't just change the policy but we made commitments as to how much we were going to have to invest in the juvenile system."
Juvenile Justice projected a 64% systemic increase during the first year of implementation of the law.
The increase was 38%, keeping in mind the COVID-19 pandemic likely had an effect on the total since schools were closed, which lowered the number of offenses on school grounds, according to the advisory committee.
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