At what age should juvenile offenders be tried and treated as adults in North Carolina? What constitutes a juvenile’s actions so irredeemable that they bypass the juvenile system and go straight into adult corrections?

As times change and public safety evolves, it is important to reflect on the principles that guide our justice system. One such principle is the notion of rehabilitation and second chances, especially when it comes to juveniles.

In North Carolina, the Juvenile Justice Reinvestment Act (S.L. 2017-57), more commonly known as “Raise the Age,” was implemented on December 1, 2019. The law redirected 16 and 17-year-olds who committed misdemeanors and low-level felonies from automatically being charged in the adult criminal justice system.

This initiative became law only through a strong, bipartisan coalition of support from all three branches of government, prosecutors, law enforcement, the business community and advocacy organizations. Its implementation marked a significant milestone in our state’s commitment to justice reform and, more than four years later, it is ever important to remember the ‘why’ behind this policy.

Upon enacting the Juvenile Justice Reinvestment Act, North Carolina ended a century-long practice of prosecuting teens as adults and was no longer the only state in the nation to do so. By incorporating 16-and-17-year-olds into the juvenile justice system, the state embraced an approach proven to not only decrease crime but also to be cost-effective. The reasoning was obvious: The overwhelming majority of juveniles are more effectively treated in the juvenile justice system with age-appropriate programming.

The mission of both the North Carolina Department of Public Safety’s (NCPDS) Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (JJDP) and the Division of Adult Corrections (NC DAC), while both equally necessary, could not be more different.

The mission of JJDP is to “reduce and prevent juvenile delinquency by effectively intervening, educating and treating youth in order to strengthen families and increase public safety.” On the other hand, the mission of NC DAC is to “promote public safety by the administration of a fair and humane system which provides reasonable opportunities for adjudicated offenders to develop progressively responsible behavior.”

While both missions underscore the importance of rehabilitation and public safety, the mission of JJDP recognizes that effective intervention and treatment for young individuals is essential for strengthening families and communities. Youthful mistakes should not result in lifelong consequences within the adult criminal justice system. JJDP is there to prevent the cycle of recidivism by offering young offenders a chance to learn from their mistakes and grow into law-abiding citizens.

Raise the Age was not enacted haphazardly but rather as a result of thorough research, data analysis, and collaboration across branches of government, law enforcement, prosecutors, the business community and advocacy organizations. It was born from a bipartisan coalition that recognized the need for change and the potential for positive outcomes in our justice system.

HB 280: Juvenile Justice Reinvestment Act, which we know as Raise the Age, had a total of 68 sponsors, 28 Republicans and 40 Democrats, and it passed the House in May 2017 with a vote of 104-8. Within that 104, 43 ayes were Democrat and 61 were Republican, with some legislators being former law enforcement and legal professionals.

In addition, former North Carolina Chief Justice Mark Martin showed strong public support for the initiative, noting that raising the age of juvenile jurisdiction was his highest legislative priority in 2017. Martin said that “Juvenile reinvestment will help strengthen families and is likely to result in lower recidivism, less crime, and increased safety,” said Chief Justice Martin. “Reinvesting in our youth will result in economic benefits for the state of North Carolina.”

As North Carolinians, we must remember why Raise the Age was implemented – to believe in the redemption, rehabilitation, and potential of our youth. Upholding these principles and investing in juvenile justice is crucial for creating safer communities and ensuring fairness in our justice system.