Often mentioned in the same sentence, North Carolina and New York are the last two states in the country sending 16 and 17-year-old youth accused of crimes to the adult criminal justice system. Now that may change. In their recently released report (1/19/15), the New York Governor’s Commission on Youth, Public Safety, & Justice definitively called for legislation to phase in raising the age of juvenile court jurisdiction to age 18 over the next three years (the full report is available at this link ——- -https://www.governor.ny.gov/sites/governor.ny.gov/files/atoms/files/ReportofCommissiononYouthPublicSafetyandJustice_0.pdf).
Governor Cuomo supported raising the age of juvenile jurisdiction in his January 2014 State of the State address, stating “Our juvenile justice laws are outdated….It’s not right; it’s not fair.” With the latest Commission report inclusive of the most contemporary adolescent developmental science, public safety research, evidence-based practices, and the results of various reforms enacted in New York over the past few decades, not raising the age would counter almost every intuitive and rational way of thinking about what’s best for youth and New York generally. The Commission’s report includes cost-benefit studies showing budgetary and crime victimization savings that will occur by shifting juveniles from the adult to the juvenile justice system, in addition to broadening non-institutional and evidence supported practices as well as community-based interventions. The use of graduated responses at local levels is also encouraged. The projected taxpayer and crime victim savings are substantial. And most of all, the recommendations in the report mirror what the rest of the country has known for some time now — adolescents are developmentally different than adults, and approaches to changing their lives must be different too. Placing 16 and 17-year-old youths in adult criminal justice systems dramatically heightens prospects of their committing future crimes; it also increases the chances of serious mental health/substance abuse disorders among participants including worsening suicidal tendencies; and, the results of such practices are particularly detrimental to persons of color. The lifelong impacts of overly harsh and sometimes inconsistent treatment along with the collateral consequences of having an adult criminal record can be mitigated with thoughtful policies.
North Carolina’s Legislators and Governor can look at Governor Cuomo’s Commission report as a bit of a hand off – work done for them by an informed and thoughtful, diverse set of stakeholders that thoroughly performed their due diligence but also got it right in another state. It’s time, North Carolina, to join the rest of the country in modernizing the juvenile justice system by adopting a developmentally appropriate, evidence-supported and community focused juvenile justice system. Legislators can design the fiscal incentives and policies to make it happen — and then like other states, citizens will watch as budgetary savings occur to society as well as improvements in the lives of crime victims over the long run, while communities become safer.