By Katharine Batchelor
On December 1, 2019, North Carolina joined the rest of the country in its treatment of youthful offenders ages sixteen and seventeen. With Raise the Age, sixteen and seventeen-year-olds who are charged with crimes in North Carolina will no longer automatically be adjudicated in adult court regardless of the type of crime. Originally passed in 2017, the new law, known as the Juvenile Justice Reinvestment Act (“JJRA”), is a victory for criminal justice reform advocates and was celebrated across the state. Criminal justice scholars, practitioners, and legislators have worked the past two years on developing an implementation plan. Significant efforts were made to train law enforcement personnel as well as prosecutors and defense attorneys. With Raise the Age officially in effect, the North Carolina juvenile court system faces a major adjustment in 2020 as it works to incorporate sixteen and seventeen-year-olds. This post will briefly review the history of Raise the Age, highlight a few key aspects of the new legislation, and discuss lingering challenges to the successful implementation of the JJRA.
The Road to Raise the Age
Since 1919, juvenile courts in North Carolina had jurisdiction only over offenders under the age of sixteen. The moment a teenager turned sixteen, he or she would automatically be tried and convicted in adult court. For the next one hundred years, the law remained largely unchanged. In 2005, the North Carolina Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission began to assess the current state of juvenile justice and the treatment of youthful offenders. In 2015, former Chief Justice Mark Martin convened the North Carolina Commission on the Administration of Law and Justice (“NCCALJ”) to systematically review the entire state court system. The Criminal Investigation and Adjudication Committee (“Committee”) of the NCCALJ was tasked with reviewing the jurisdiction of the then-existing juvenile court system and evaluating the potential and the need for reform.
In conducting its work, the Committee made several key determinations regarding Raise the Age. First, the Committee learned that the vast majority of youthful offenders, approximately 97% in 2014, ages sixteen and seventeen are convicted of misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies. Second, in reviewing studies, statistics, and other information, the Committee determined that Raise the Age would have economic and societal benefits, as well as make for safer North Carolina communities. The reasons for these advantages are interrelated. Studies and data illustrate that recidivism rates are higher when youthful offenders are prosecuted as adults. Likewise, rehabilitation efforts are proven to be more effective for youthful offenders when they occur in youth detention centers as opposed to adult prisons. Lower recidivism rates thus translate to increased earning potential for youth without a criminal record. Without a criminal record, youth are more readily able to obtain employment as adults. Accordingly, communities are ultimately safer if recidivism rates are reduced and youthful offenders are more employable. This correlation is buttressed by the data from other states that have raised the age and the experiences of those states years after the juvenile age was successfully raised.
The New Law
Based on the Committee’s finding and recommendations, the North Carolina General Assembly drafted the JJRA. The JJRA stipulates that all criminal court cases where the offender is under the age of eighteen will begin in juvenile court. If a youthful offender aged sixteen or seventeen is charged with an A-G felony, however, the JJRA mandates a transfer to adult court upon a finding of probable cause or the return of a bill indictment. A-G felonies range from first-degree murder (Class A) and first-degree rape (Class B1) to armed robbery (Class D), assault inflicting serious bodily injury (Class F), and common law robbery (Class G). If a juvenile prosecutor wants to transfer a youthful offender charged with an H or an I felony, then a hearing must be held in juvenile court before a transfer could occur. Class H felonies include possessing stolen goods, breaking or entering buildings with felonious intent, and possessing cocaine with the intent to sell, manufacture, or distribute. Class I felonies include breaking or entering motor vehicles, cocaine possession, and possessing marijuana with the intent to sell, manufacture, or distribute. Accordingly, the roughly three percent of youthful offenders ages sixteen and seventeen that commit violent felonies will continue to be adjudicated in adult court. That stipulation lessened the concerns of some opponents of Raise the Age that the most severe crimes would not receive proper sanctions within the juvenile system.
The Road Ahead for Raise the Age
With the structure of the law in place, implementation efforts began in force. In addition to training juvenile justice personnel and law enforcement about the new law, those in charge of implementing the JJRA had to determine how the new law would be resourced. Funding became a primary concern and ensuring adequate funding remains a concern.
As part of the Committee’s work, two different studies were cited showing Raise the Age would generate significant economic benefits for the state. A study in 2009 by the Governor’s Crime Commission estimated that changing juvenile courts’ original jurisdiction would generate approximately $7.1 million in net benefits. A study in 2011 by the Youth Accountability Planning Task Force estimated that prosecuting misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies in juvenile court would generate approximately $52.3 million in net benefits. Despite the economic benefits, funding Raise the Age remains a primary concern for advocates, attorneys, and legislators. The Juvenile Justice Advisory Committee (“JJAC”), created by the JJRA to implement Raise the Age, recommended approximately $51 million in funding during FY20 and $66 million in funding during FY21. Raise the Age is estimated to increase the number of youthful offenders processed through the juvenile system by sixty-four percent. The juvenile court system will need to receive adequate and consistent funding in order to diligently and faithfully serve the new population of sixteen and seventeen-year-olds who will be walking through the juvenile court doors.
Part of the funding calculation includes reducing the number of school-based referrals that the juvenile court system receives each year. In 2017, 11,462 school-based referrals were made to the juvenile court system which constituted forty-one percent of all juvenile complaints. Of these referrals, approximately ninety-two percent of these referrals were misdemeanors. The volume of these referrals contributes to the school-to-prison pipeline, because rather than resolve the disciplinary issues internally within the school system, kids and teenagers are sent to the court system. Studies have shown that this type of excessive punishment is counterproductive to effective discipline and is racially-biased. By decreasing the number of school-based referrals and strengthening school-justice programs to handle disciplinary actions within the school, the overall caseload of the juvenile court system will be reduced. That decrease in turn will open up funds within the juvenile system to handle the influx of sixteen and seventeen-year-old offenders.
Raise the Age is an exciting
development within the on-going call for criminal justice reform in North
Carolina. Continued statewide support from each type of stakeholder will result
in successful implementation both in 2020 and the decades to come.
 Anne Blythe, NC becomes last state to ‘raise the age’ of teens in court (June 20, 2017 5:27 PM), https://www.newsobserver.com/news/politics-government/article157219234.html.
 “Raise the Age” is the common term for the Juvenile Justice Reinvestment Act. See infra note 5.
 S.L. 2017-57 §§ 16D.4.(a)–(tt) https://files.nc.gov/ncdps/documents/files/SB257%20-%20JJ.pdf.
 North Carolina ‘Raise the Age’ initiative and other laws take effect, WXII (Dec. 1, 2019 1:49 PM), https://www.wxii12.com/article/north-carolina-raise-the-age-initiative/30062379.
 Jacquelyn Greene, Juvenile Justice Reinvestment Act Implementation Guide 2019 1 n.3 (2019).
 Id. at 1.
 Id. at 1–2.
 Id. at 1–3.
 N.C. Comm’n on the Admin. of Law & Just., Recommendations for Strengthening the Unified Court System of North Carolina, Final Report vii, 44 (2017) https://www.nccourts.gov/assets/documents/publications/nccalj_final_report.pdf.
 Id. at app. A-1.
 Id. at app. A-7.
 Id. at app. A-8–12.
 Id. at app. A-8.
 Id. at app. A-11.
 Id. at app. A-11–12.
 Raise the Age – NC, N.C. Dep’t of Public Safety, https://www.ncdps.gov/our-organization/juvenile-justice/key-initiatives/raise-age-nc#what-changes-will-raise-the-age-bring? (last visited Jan. 10, 2020).
 Structured Sentencing in North Carolina, NC Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission 5 (2015) https://www.ncleg.gov/documentsites/committees/JointAppropriationsJPS/2015%20Session/2015-02-11%20Structured%20Sentencing/SPAC_Structured_Sentencing_Handout_2015_02_11.pdf
 Id. at 6.
 See Opponents raise concerns, but ‘raise the age’ proposal clears House, WRAL, https://www.wral.com/opponents-raise-concerns-but-raise-the-age-proposal-clears-house/16707650/ (last updated July 13, 2018).
 Juvenile Jurisdiction Advisory Committee, N. C. Dep’t of Public Safety, https://www.ncdps.gov/our-organization/juvenile-justice/key-initiatives/raise-age-nc/juvenile-jurisdiction-advisory-committee (last visited Jan. 12, 2020).
 N.C. Comm’n on the Admin. of Law & Just., supra note 12, at app. A-11.
 Jacquelyn Greene, Getting Ready for Raise the Age Implementation, UNC Sch. of Gov’t: On the Civil Side (Feb. 26, 2019 10:00 AM), https://civil.sog.unc.edu/getting-ready-for-raise-the-age-implementation/.
 Juvenile Jurisdiction Advisory Committee, Juvenile Age Interim Report (2019) https://files.nc.gov/ncdps/documents/files/JJAC_Jan_15_report_Complete.pdf.
 Greene, supra note 33.
 N.C. Comm’n on the Admin. of Law & Just., supra note 12, at app. A-11.
 School Justice Partnership Toolkit: Overview, School Justice Partnership 10 (2018) https://files.nc.gov/ncdps/documents/files/Divisions/jj/RTA/SJP%20Toolkit%20Overview.pdf.
 Id. at 11.
 N.C. Comm’n on the Admin. of Law & Just., supra note 12, at app. A-18.
 Id.; About Raise the Age, supra note 5.
 N.C. Comm’n on the Admin. of Law & Just., supra note 12, at app. A-18–19.