Not even the pandemic could pull down Raise The Age in the first year

Author: Jerry Higgins, Communications Officer

After years of planning, North Carolina implemented the Juvenile Justice Reinvestment Act (S.L. 2017-57) on Dec. 1, 2019. More commonly known as “Raise the Age,” the law redirects 16 and 17-year-olds who committed misdemeanors and low-level felonies from automatically being charged in the adult criminal justice system.

North Carolina was one of the last states to raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction for most offenses to 18. By including 16 and 17-yearolds under juvenile jurisdiction, the state endorsed a practice that is not only effective in reducing crime but also is cost-effective. 

“Since Raise the Age was enacted, about 5,000 kids have been kept out of the adult system and left in the juvenile system to get age-appropriate services,” said William Lassiter, the deputy secretary for Juvenile Justice. “In the juvenile justice system, where the focus is on rehabilitation and not punishment, we get better results. We cut recidivism in half when the focus is on assessment of risk and needs. It costs more money for rehabilitation but (society) gets a better return on it.”

“To put it plainly, it was the right thing to do,” said Kimberly Quintus, the director of the Juvenile Justice Reinvestment Act Office. “It was the right thing for youth and families, for the taxpayer and public, for potential victims, and for unrealized successes previously hindered by punitive practices.”

The first year of Raise the Age saw several goals attained:

  • Created and maintained open lines of communication to accept feedback and solutions.
  • Provided regular legislative and implementation updates to stakeholders through the Juvenile Jurisdiction Advisory Committee.
  • Established tools to ensure continued training resource availability.
  • Implemented age-appropriate programming; and
  • Grew detention capacity throughout the state, adding 133 detention beds to meet the demands of the increased population that accompanied Raise the Age.

Projections vs. Reality in the Year of COVID-19

Equipped with a systemic policy change, bipartisan support in the NC General Assembly, and a group of dedicated and invested stakeholders, Juvenile Justice commenced with implementation of Raise the Age. 

S.L. 2017-57 created the Juvenile Jurisdiction Advisory Committee, a 21-member committee tasked with aiding in successful implementation of the law by making legislative, funding and administrative recommendations to the General Assembly. 

Projections on the number of juveniles to be affected by Raise the Age in the first year were based on the behaviors of 15 year-olds in the juvenile justice system and how complaints against them were handled in FY16. This was coupled with Administrative Office of the Courts statistical defendant data and Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission conviction data to formulate a comprehensive projection.  

Year One of Raise the Age saw:

  • Juvenile Justice projected a 64 percent systemic increase. In actuality, it saw a 38 percent increase in a year of a pandemic. 
  • More juveniles had a complaint diverted (24.3 percent compared to 18.5 percent) or closed (29.1 percent compared to 13.4 percent) than expected. 
  • School-based complaints composed 45 percent of all complaints in calendar year 2019, and typically represent more than 40 percent of all complaints each year. However, when schools were closed last March, the number of school-based complaints received dramatically decreased and currently represent only 16 percent of all complaints received in 2020, which includes both open and closed school months. 
  • The juvenile detention population received fewer admissions than projected due to receiving fewer complaints for Felony class H through Misdemeanor 3 offenses. Significant efforts have gone into reducing the juvenile detention population in a safe way during the pandemic.

“The only direct tie to the pandemic is the number of complaints from schools,” Quintus said. “We’re not sure when those numbers will go back up.”

According to Deputy Secretary Lassiter, Juvenile Justice was fortunate it worked on reducing the numbers of juveniles when the pandemic started last spring. And, Juvenile Justice has worked hard to keep the number of youths testing positive for COVID-19 at the lowest possible level.

“We worked with judges, law enforcement and district attorneys to house people who really needed to be there,” Lassiter said. “As HB 593 passed, we saw the numbers creep up. But we are fortunate kids stay in single occupancy rooms.  We have strong protocols in place for social distancing and cleaning facilities. We have plenty of PPE (personal protective equipment).” 

When the pandemic was in full swing, Quintus said all the preparations for determining what would happen in the first year “was well invested. We had a few bumps in the road this first year, but haven’t seen many complaints.

“The number of upper-level felonies have still come in exactly at the expected rate. But for offenses not as serious, we haven’t seen as many. Less than half the number of misdemeanors were received. The reasons could be there are significant funding streams set up for diversion options for upper-age youth through age-appropriate programs. Changes in any charging practices cannot be identified. Or, it could be attributable to the pandemic, such as school closures and local attitudes towards detainment.” 

House Bill 593

In response to new requirements to detain youths ages 17 or younger who are charged and/or sentenced outside of the juvenile justice system in juvenile detention centers instead of adult facilities, House Bill 593 was signed by Gov. Roy Cooper on July 1 and went into effect a month later. The law implemented new policy, processes and training to accommodate juveniles in detention centers who are awaiting trial for misdemeanors or low-level felonies.

As of Aug. 1, every criminal court youth ordered into secure custody pre-trial is now housed in a juvenile detention center instead of a county jail until (s)he is released, bonded out or reaches the age of 18. At that time, the youth would be transported to county jail. Youth under the age of 18 who are ordered to a term of imprisonment in a county jail as a result of a criminal court matter now serve that time in a juvenile detention facility as long as they remain under the age of 18.

With more juveniles needing housing, the question of having enough detention beds needed to be answered. Juvenile Justice added 133 juvenile detention beds in preparation for Raise the Age, which equals about 44 percent of the projected 300 new beds needed.  Juveniles admitted to juvenile detention are also spending more time in a juvenile detention center. A youth who was transferred to superior court prior to Raise the Age spent on average 250 days confined pre-trial. A juvenile in the juvenile justice system who is not transferred to the adult system spends on average 18 to 21 days in juvenile detention pre-trial. The number of transfers to superior court has increased 557 percent and makes up 29 percent of the daily juvenile detention population. 

Juvenile Justice has demonstrated it is up to the task of implementing Raise the Age and federal sight and sound separation requirements (between adults and juveniles ages 16 or 17 at age of offense). While their offense may be scheduled for criminal court, these youths will continue to be housed in juvenile detention pre-trial and upon sentence if they would have otherwise been sentenced to a jail stay, and will receive the same detention programs and services as the juvenile court population.

HB593 required new policy, processes and training be delivered promptly to staff. Training was offered to detention facility directors and supervisors, including an introduction to criminal court forms and how to determine the length of stay required based on credits -- all new concepts to juvenile detention staff.
Systemwide reports were amended to reflect the growing number of youths admitted under this law, and Juvenile Justice IT databases (NC-JOIN and NC-ALLIES), and detention billing system changes were implemented to allow for detention staff to capture these admissions and bill counties accordingly.

Impact on Community Programs 

The Community Programs section has worked with every county child-serving agency and nonprofits to serve North Carolina’s most vulnerable youth. Community providers are being trained on how to use the YASI reports to support youth referred by court services to programs. 

Community Programs also has long-standing relationships with the North Carolina Association of Community Alternatives for Youth and the North Carolina Juvenile Services Association (NCJSA) and uses its conference platforms to educate service providers, many of whom are also funded by the department.  
According to Community Programs Director Cindy Porterfield, COVID-19 has not stopped her staff from moving forward with Raise the Age:

  • Two new residential sites opened this year, one in Forsyth County and one in Union County.  
  • Community Programs responded to a request from Forsyth and Guilford county governments to lend guidance toward addressing the increase in gun violence in those areas. Juvenile Justice worked with the Fayetteville Police Department to provide training called Educating Kids About Gun Violence (EKG) geared toward seventh graders. 
  • Juvenile Justice released two RFPs in the Piedmont region to address the gang intervention strategies (Street Outreach Model from the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention) and residential intervention needs for gang-involved youth.
  • JJ has also received a three-year JJDP grant for $300,000 to address the development and implementation of a pre-trial release program model in Wake County and eight surrounding counties. The project will focus on establishing viable protocols and access to services in both urban and rural communities.  This project will assist Juvenile Justice by coordinating release supervision for HB593 criminal court youth and youth transferred to superior court (boundovers) in affected counties. Other states have augmented pre-trial release programming as a result of raising the age of juveniles and in preparation for compliance with federal mandates regarding removal of youth from jails. 
  • Other tasks include a successful rollout of the Raise the Age Juvenile Crime Prevention Council expansion budgets for 2019-20 and 2020-21, increasing accessibility of Teen Court and other restorative justice models from 60 to 96 counties within the two years; and rolling out a new protocol for JCPCs to engage in a two-year funding cycle (HB593). 

“We are very busy, despite COVID, and very fortunate to have a very savvy team of intellectually gifted staff that can make things happen,” Porterfield said.

Juvenile Justice continues to move forward in improving Raise the Age, according to Quintus. Policy changes where necessary will be implemented with the input of stakeholders and agencies. 

“Our staff have done a phenomenal job making sure this goes as smoothly as possible,” Quintus said. “Our staff is focused on making this successful. Our staff is behind the policy. We have the skills to serve the kids. We have the means, thanks to the General Assembly. We received additional positions to ensure workload did not impact success. Our staff are really invested in this change and have worked hard to make it work.”

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