“From In re Gault to Raising the Age: There is Always Room for More Justice” by Guest Blogger Matt Herr

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As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of In re Gault this month, it is a great opportunity to take stock of how far we have come and where we stand on juvenile justice issues in North Carolina today.

In re Gault enshrined in American jurisprudence an important due process “floor” for juveniles by recognizing that they have at least the same due process rights as adults in our criminal justice system. As a result, juveniles today are receiving more due process protections in our courts.

North Carolina’s juvenile justice system also has made numerous reforms over the past two decades and is more focused on rehabilitation than it has been ever before. This means that more young people are getting set back on track and held accountable for their actions without having their lives upended and their futures put at risk.

It also looks like 2017 may be the year that North Carolina joins the rest of the country in “Raising the Age.” As of last month, North Carolina became the last state in the country that automatically prosecutes both 16- and 17-year-olds as adults, no matter how minor the offense. The data on our current approach consistently shows that it leads to worse outcomes, makes our communities less safe, and costs taxpayers more.

Disability Rights NC cares about this issue because a significant number of the youth in our criminal justice system have disabilities. Moreover, children with disabilities already have a hard enough time accessing housing, education, and employment during those crucial transition years into adulthood and beyond. When we further saddle those children with the 1,000 “collateral consequences” of having an adult criminal record and the trauma of incarcerating them with adults—where they are significantly more likely to be physically or sexually victimized and manipulated by gangs—we set those children up for failure. It increases their future reliance on government assistance and makes it more likely that they will resort to future criminal activity and re-enter the criminal justice system. That ends up costing North Carolina taxpayers even more in the long run and has serious repercussions for families throughout our state.

We are privileged to be part of a broad coalition focused on Raising the Age this year—including the North Carolina courts, the North Carolina Office of the Juvenile Defender, law enforcement, and stakeholders in every corner of the political spectrum. We are working to support the Juvenile Justice Reinvestment Act (HB280), which would Raise the Age to 18 in North Carolina for all but the most serious, violent felonies. It would keep 97% of the youth who get mixed up with the law in the juvenile system and get our kids the supports they need to grow into successful, contributing members of society. That bill passed the North Carolina House last week with overwhelming support. It now moves on to the Senate, where we will continue the work of bringing meaningful change to North Carolina’s youth.

Young people in our criminal justice system, and particularly those with disabilities, are the most vulnerable defendants in our criminal justice system. That will never change. Nor will the fundamental truth that the law is at its most when it protects the least of us. If there is one lesson we can learn from working with these kids—whether through protecting their basic rights, making practical reforms to focus on rehabilitation, or recognizing under the law that they are, in fact, children—it is that there is always room for more justice.

Matthew Herr is an attorney and policy analyst with Disability Rights NC. Follow him at @MattHerrTweets.

OJD Big Week Wrap-Up: Gault, H280, and Training

It’s been an eventful week for our office and just to keep everyone in the loop on what’s been going on, we’ve prepared a quick summary of the excitement for you here!

Monday, May 15, was the 50th anniversary of In re Gault.  Our office hosted a successful Twitter Town Hall with the help of representatives from the Administrative Office of the Courts, the N.C. Advocates for Justice, ACLU, the Council for Children’s Rights, the N.C. Bar Association, the Office of the Appellate Defender and others.  During the event we GAULTat50_TwitterTownHall_1discussed what it means to fulfill the promise of Gault and the need to raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction in N.C.  Governor Roy Cooper also chimed in using our hashtag, #Gault50NC, and his tweets for  were listed several times on the top tweets in NC!

Prior to the Twitter event, our office also debuted our video discussing Gault and Raise the Age on social media.  The video stars Communications and Office Manager Marcus Thompson and was created in collaboration with Chris Mears of AOC.

Juvenile Defender Eric Zogry also attended the Gault at 50 Gala in Washington, D.C that evening.  During the gala, Eric met with many other leaders in juvenile defense from across the country.

The National Juvenile Defender Center also released its report titled Access Denied: A National Snapshot of States’ Failure to Protect Children’s Right to Counsel, highlighting the shortcomings of states across the country in fulfilling the promise of Gault.

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The Annual Spring Public Defenders and Investigator Conference was held in Charlotte from May 17-19.  This was the first year two juvenile tracks were offered,  with one covering protection from ICE and another on education advocacy.  Our own Assistant Juvenile Defender Kim Howes participated in the conference and also assisted in getting the two juvenile defense courses included this year.  (*applause* Great job, Kim!)

On Wednesday, House Bill 280, the Juvenile Justice Reinvestment Act, had its second hearing in the House.

Rep. Chuck McGrady, Rep Marcia Morey, and others stood to voice their support of the bill.  Arguments made in favor of the bill addressed the need to protect youth from physical assault in adult prisons, higher rates of recidivism among youth incarcerated with adults, the suffering of youth with disabilities in the justice system, and youth being imprisoned in the criminal system for crimes as simple as littering or performing harmless pranks.

Rep. Larry Pittman and others did stand to voice their concerns and opposition to the bill.  Pittman asked fellow representatives to forget that N.C. was standing alone in keeping 15 as the maximum age for juveniles, and “not to go easy on offenders based on age”, but to consider the victims of their crimes instead.  Some representatives only proposed that the bill be amended to include F-I felonies and other minor changes, but still voiced their support for raising the age.  Concerns about recurring gang activity among youth who are given too much leniency in juvenile court were also brought up.  The most common point of opposition seemed to be about the budget.

In closing, McGrady addressed the opposition, saying that there is a budget in place and pointing out that there were more people complaining about the costs than the law itself.  In the end, the bill was passed in a 104-8 vote!

We want to celebrate these successes and also look for more opportunities to improve the juvenile justice system in N.C.  There are still plenty of training events scheduled for the remainder of the year, more work to be done in the protection of children’s rights, and a lot of preparation for when N.C. finally raises the age.  Let’s continue gaining more successes and let us know your thoughts for what could be done going forward!

House Holds Hearing for House Bill 280, Governor Gives Proclamation for Gault

The anniversary is nigh, people, and Gov. Roy Cooper issued his proclamation last week commending May 15th as the 50th anniversary of In re Gault.  This proclamation will soon be added to the N.C. Gault page along with other content.  Check back over the next few days and be prepared to join us May 15 at noon for our Twitter Town Hall, sharing your thoughts and questions on Gault using #Gault50NC!

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In other news, on Wednesday, the N.C. House of Representatives Committee held its first hearing for House Bill 280, the Juvenile Justice Reinvestment Act.  The Committee voted unanimously in favor of passing the bill on to the next phase.

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“Why would one put most juvenile offenders in the adult justice system when only a small percent need to be treated as adults?” asked Rep. Chuck McGrady, one of the primary representatives in support of the bill, acknowledging that only 3 percent of crimes committed by juveniles in N.C. are considered violent.  McGrady also stated that by raising the age of juvenile jurisdiction there would be much lower rates of recidivism for juveniles and lower costs for the state as a whole.

Rep. Allen McNeill suggested an amendment to the bill, citing sections of it that addressed gang activity among youth.  McNeill conveyed his concerns about youth continuing their involvement in gangs after release from juvenile detention, referring to his own experiences in law enforcement.  One other representative raised concerns for the need to include F-I felonies in the amendment as well, since current gang recruitment acts would fall into those categories  (the current bill only automatically sends juveniles to the criminal justice system for class A-E).  No amendments have been made yet.

Several other supporters of H280 stood to voice their thoughts on the need to raise the age including N.C. Child’s Adam Sotak, Youth Justice Project’s Ricky Watson, Jr., and Commissioner Brenda A. Howerton.  Howerton, who is president-elect of the North Carolina Association of Counties, pointed out the success of diversion programs for youth specifically in Durham County while emphasizing her support for raising the age.  One speaker likened a criminal record for a juvenile to a “scarlet letter” that prevents them from obtaining significant opportunities as adults, even for nonviolent offenses.  It was also stated by one prosecutor that the role of a prosecutor is not to just gain convictions, but to actually keep communities safe and uphold the constitutionality of the law.

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“If we [raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction] the sky will not fall and we will see the benefits,” said Gwendolyn Chunn, former president of the American Correctional Association and former executive director of the Juvenile Justice Institute.  Chunn related the moment to a religious experience and she stated that N.C. is not a hotbed for crime, but a very progressive state that needed this change.

Karen Simon, director of Inmate Programs at the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office, said that youth in the adult system are at risk of being put into solitary confinement, which is shown to have detrimental effects on the mental health of prisoners, especially juveniles.  “Think not of a faceless group of 16- and 17-year-olds,” Simon said, “but think of your own kids.”

Rep. Marcia Morey, a former chief district court judge, said that not all felonies can be treated the same, and reduction in cases and adjustments are possible.

“We need to give every young person the opportunity to reach their full potential,” said Rep. Bob Steinburg.  “…with the current laws, we might as well hand them their death sentences.”

The bill was introduced to the House Appropriations Committee on Thursday morning, and while there was some opposition to it this time, it was passed in the Committee with a strong majority and is expected to be heard on the House floor later in May.  If it continues to pass into law, H280 will take full effect in 2019.

 

Chief Justice Addresses #RaisetheAgeNC Again at Press Conference

On Monday, Chief Justice Mark Martin held a press conference at the N.C. Legislative Building to offer updates and remind the public of the importance of North Carolina raising the age of juvenile jurisdiction.  Martin and other speakers revisited the benefits of the Juvenile Justice Reinvestment Act, House Bill 280, which was introduced in March, and echoed the recommendations on juvenile justice reinvestment presented in the North Carolina Commission on the Administration of Law and Justice’s final report.

As expected, after the attention H280 received in March and the recent move by New York to raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction, there was tremendous support again for N.C. to move forward with the bill.  Judge Martin was joined by Former Rep. Tom Murry, Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison, Former Lt. Gov. James Gardner, Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson, Former Chief District Court Judge Marcia Morey, who now has a seat in the N.C. House of Representatives, along with several others in support of raising the age.

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Chief Justice Martin stated that over 90 percent of parents thought that the maximum age for juvenile jurisdiction was already 18, and while there are 11 counties where young people are diverted to the juvenile system, 89 still remain where they are not.

Comparisons were made to other states, illustrating the disadvantages youth in N.C. face when measured against states such as Tennessee, where young people under the age of 18 are not automatically turned over to criminal court for minor offenses.  Former Lt. Gov. Gardner even pointed out how competitive the job market already is for young people today, whether they have been involved in the justice system or not, referring to his grandson who is an Eagle Scout with no criminal record.

Sheriff Harrison stated that he believed raising the age is needed in N.C., but he also acknowledged that money would be needed to make the necessary transitions.  He emphasized his belief in the Juvenile Justice Reinvestment Act saying, “I think this initiative will stop some crime… I know it will.”

Murry drove home the point, saying, “We already have Raise the Age in every state.  Now we need to bring the promise to N.C.

Additionally, with the anniversary of In re Gault close at hand, William Lassiter, Deputy Commissioner of Juvenile Justice at the N.C. Dept. of Public Safety stated, “The Gault decision was one of the precursors to raising the age.  It really has effected how the juvenile justice system has been set up in our country, and North Carolina is kind of lagging behind because we haven’t raised the age.  So, it would be sweet justice if we could pass Raise the Age on the 50th anniversary of Gault.”

Youth Justice Project Promotes #RaisetheAgeNC Virtual Advocacy Day

Today, starting at 9 a.m. and continuing until 7 p.m., the Youth Justice Project is hosting a Virtual Advocacy Day to raise awareness about the need to raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction in N.C.  Since New York passed legislation to raise the age to 18 earlier this week, North Carolina now remains the last state to at least include 16-year-olds.

In this event, the Youth Justice Project shares information through various social media outlets, including Twitter and YouTube, and collaborates with various juvenile justice advocates to rally support for House Bill 280.  One YouTube video also features Juvenile Defender Eric Zogry speaking with Ricky Watson on this monumental issue.  You can view the video here.

For more information, please check here and to join the conversation visit the Youth Justice NC Facebook page and tweet @YouthJusticeNC and use #RaisetheAgeNC.

#RaisetheAgeNC is Becoming a Reality with Introduction of New Bill

Since 2007, seven states have changed their laws to include youth 16 and 17 years of age in the juvenile justice system, cutting the number of youth in the criminal justice system in half nationwide and without any detrimental effects on the wallets of taxpayers.  North Carolina and New York still remain the only two states that treat 16- and 17-year-olds as adults.

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Today, House Bill 280, the Juvenile Justice Reinvestment Act, which raises the age to include juveniles 16 and 17 years of age in the North Carolina juvenile justice system, was introduced to the legislator and announced during a press conference.  Representative Chuck McGrady stated that “besides being the right thing to do, this bill was also fiscally the right thing to do” because it would save the state money in the long term.

“They did what they did, and parents would come to court and plead their children guilty every day because it was the right thing to do to take responsibility for their actions, and they have no inclination because they have no training and they assume that juvenile jurisdiction ends at 18, but they have no idea that they are putting a permanent mark that is an economic disincentive to the youth of our state,” said Judge Marion Warren, Director of the Administrative Office of the Courts and a former district court judge who presided over hundreds of juvenile cases.  Judge Warren shared the statistic that 96.7 percent of crimes committed by 16- and 17-year-old offenders were for misdemeanors and nonviolent crimes. “This process brought the people together to see exactly what it was doing to our state.  North Carolina cannot be last…  North Carolina always finds itself as a leader on the position for self-improvement, introspection, and thought.  Now is the time to raise the juvenile age.  It is time to support House Bill 280.”

Representative Duane Hall, who noted his support of the issue the past decade, said that the bill had tremendous bipartisan support.  Representative Hall said that before he was a member of the Legislature, he worked as an attorney representing children for small, first-time offenses.  He stated that he had teenagers who came to him in tears because they would not have the opportunity to pursue their desired careers in military or obtain financial aid because of the permanent consequences that followed them for the smallest offenses.

Representative Kelly Alexander said that he and his colleagues of the Legislative Black Caucus on both the Senate and House sides have had an interest in juvenile justice for a long time and they supported the change 100 percent.

William Lassiter, Deputy Commissioner of the Division of Juvenile Justice, said that the cost savings estimated for N.C. as a result of the bill could be in the range of $7 million to $50 million, depending on the economic contribution of each juvenile that would be effected in the justice system based on their ability to obtain a diploma, college degree, and be taxpaying citizens.  He said that just by keeping kids in the juvenile justice system there are lower rates of recidivism, which is the major factor in cost reduction for the state.  He mentioned that for nine years in a row now there has been a 30 percent decline in juvenile crime rates.  There has been a reduction in 16 and 17 year olds on probation from about 8,000 to less than 2,000 in the past decade under adult supervision because of improvements in the juvenile justice system every day.

When asked what improvements in the bill gained the support of law enforcement, Judge Warren said that he believed that the two most significant changes were the ability to transfer A-E felonies to criminal court, which would be more to the benefit of the community than to the juvenile, and a prepetition diversion, which allowed other stakeholders to get involved in putting a child on the right path.

According to the latest report from the Justice Policy Institute released on March 7th, despite concerns that the intake of these youth into the juvenile justice system would ultimately overwhelm the states that raised the age and significantly increase the costs to taxpayers, it was proven that by applying better practices these issues could be easily alleviated.  Programs to assist youth in getting past delinquency and reducing recidivism for them in turn reduced the need for confinement and increased public safety.  Fewer prisons are needed as a result of youth being taken out of the criminal justice system and juveniles are also safer when they are not being incarcerated with adults, which would put them at risk of being sexually assaulted.

In the past decade, North Carolina has halved the number of youth admitted to detention centers.  The North Carolina Commission on the Administration of Law and Justice Committee on Criminal Investigation and Adjudication reported that, because the Division of Juvenile Justice has shifted to more effective youth justice practices, they have already produced millions of dollars in cost savings to help implement raise the age.

Contact OJD for more information about H280 and juvenile jurisdiction.