Friday, 7 October 2011

Age of offenders

When people ask her why 16- and 17-year-olds shouldn’t be tried as adults, Lisa Dodson likes to tell them a story.
Several years ago, a young woman graduated with honors from UNC-Charlotte and sought employment with an insurance firm in Connecticut. As a 16-year-old in Alamance County, the woman was charged with underage drinking, says Dodson — the director of Alamance County Dispute Settlement and Youth Services.
A first-time offender, the woman was placed on deferred prosecution, complied with a year of probation and the district attorney’s office dropped the charges against her. Other than the non-prosecuted charge, the woman’s record was clean.
The insurance firm called Dodson’s office when it discovered the woman’s charge in a background check. Dodson explained the charge was a misdemeanor, was six years in the past and that it was dropped.
“If this had happened in any other state, you wouldn’t know about it,” Dodson told the caller.
“But we do know about it,” the caller said.
The woman didn’t get the job.
North Carolina is one of only two states in the country that prosecutes 16- and 17-year-olds as adults for non-violent crimes. The other is New York, but that state has a tiered prosecution system that makes it easier for minors to enter adulthood with clean slates. In North Carolina, criminal convictions — including low-level and non-violent misdemeanor and felony charges — remain on a teen’s record their entire lives. One study estimated that 30,500 minors are charged as adults in this state each year.
A bill now before the General Assembly would change the age of adult prosecution for non-violent offenses to 18, placing 16- and 17-year-olds in the state’s juvenile justice system. Advocates say punishing children as adults is unjust, increases recidivism and puts greater strain on the state’s justice system. Skeptics worry that the cost of changing the system is too great.
Rep. Alice Bordsen, D-Alamance, is a co-sponsor of the bill, which would increase the age of juvenile delinquency to 18 by 2018. As the bill is currently written, the juvenile delinquency age would be raised in six-month increments over three years starting in 2015. The gradual implementation would allow the state’s juvenile system to “absorb the influx without choking,” Bordsen said this week.
“The General Assembly would have the control to slow it down at any time,” Bordsen said. “We have to make sure we have funding and make sure it works before we move on to the next age group.”

THE STATE BEGAN examining the issue in earnest in 2009 when the Youth Accountability Planning Task Force was created. A study by the Vera Institute for Justice, commissioned by that task force, showed that 31,590 North Carolina 16- and 17-year-olds were charged with crimes over a year. About 25,000 were charged with misdemeanors, 5,535 were charged with low-level felonies — usually drug possession or theft. Only 3.3 percent were charged with high-level or violent felonies, such as sexual assaults, drug trafficking, assaults with intent to kill or murder.
Under the proposed changes, that 3.3 percent would still be tried as adults in the justice system.
“Most of the kids who come into our system are first-time offenders who complete their sentence and then we never hear from them again,” Dodson said of the county’s youth services programs, which deal with children through 15 years old. “The benefit the juvenile justice system gives is that it refocuses (teens) from negative to positive. Everything we do here is to identify negative or criminal behavior and to make them realize why that’s wrong.”
Bordsen agreed that the focus of juvenile justice is rehabilitation, something most 16- to 18-year-olds would benefit from. The juvenile justice system intensely supervises juvenile offenders, meeting regularly with their families and keeping tabs on their progress in school.
“With the services and expectations attached to the juvenile system, some kids would rather be in the adult system because they can be over and done with it. (The juvenile system) is challenging, demanding and intensive. They don’t like it,” Bordsen said.
Bordsen worries that minors in the adult system are turned into criminals without supervision and if they are removed from their communities. Society ends up paying more in the long run when minors become adult offenders in the revolving door of the court and prison system.
The current system also increases recidivism among youth, Bordsen said. The Vera Institute study estimates that teen recidivism would decrease by at least 10 percent with juvenile supervision.
Minors tried as adults also lead less productive lives and become economically handicapped by their criminal record. They are also less likely to complete high school.
“We should be tough on crime. I don’t want to be soft on crime. I don’t want to be hurt or damaged (by criminals). But we have to be smart. Let’s get it right when they’re young and we’re more able to work with them,” Bordsen said.

REP. MARILYN AVILA, R-Wake, also a co-sponsor of the bill, is traveling the state and meeting with law enforcement and district attorneys to gauge their reaction to the proposed legislation. Avila met with Alamance County District Attorney Pat Nadolski last month.
Nadolski told the Times-News that he would support the change if the state allocates funding to the judicial system to cover the extra work needed to handle juvenile cases.
Juvenile cases require nearly double the time and resources to prosecute versus adult cases, according to the Vera Institute study. That study called for extra training for D.A. staffs around the state and extra personnel to handle the caseload.
“My main problem is funding. There’s been nothing I’ve seen that addresses the extra resources needed from the D.A.’s office,” Nadolski said. “We’ve already had extra duties put on us and had 30 percent of our support staff cut in the last year.”
Jim Roberson, Alamance County’s Chief District Court Judge, agreed.
Juvenile cases are tried in district court. Overhauling the juvenile system would require more resources at the district court level. Most of the 30,500 16- to 17-year-olds charged with crimes would be tried in district court. Felony charges against that age group are currently heard in superior court but would be transferred to district court. That would add $4.7 million to the district court workload on behalf of judges, clerks and district attorneys each year, the Vera Institute estimated.
Roberson believes the changes would require the state to hire more district court judges and allocate more courtrooms to district court cases than currently exist.
“It wouldn’t be possible with the resources we have now. We’re already slammed to the gills with the cases we have now,” Roberson said. “I think we’re the last state to take up this issue. I’m not opposed to it if it has the proper resources attached to deal with it.”

BORDSEN AND OTHERS backing the bill believe the state will have to identify short-term revenue sources to implement the change. That could prove difficult in an economic environment that hasn’t been forgiving to state agencies and education, which have shed thousands of jobs since the recession began.
The $59.1 million in additional costs the change would add to the state’s justice system include $28.4 million to handle an influx at youth detention centers. About $5.5 million would be needed to provide court counselors to 30,500 additional cases each year. Another $18.2 million would be needed to supervise about 6,200 additional youth placed on probation.
Projected capital costs in the Vera Institute study show the state would need to add 92 beds at youth detention facilities, an expense of $10 million. At youth development centers, where renovations could add the 158 new beds needed, $7.2 million would need to be spent.
That study also showed the long-term benefits of raising the juvenile delinquency age outweigh the short-term costs. The changes would save the justice system $21.7 million annually, save victims $3.6 million annually and save youth $97.9 million over 35 years.
“Put your money in the right place. Use it early and more intensely so you’re not coming back and spending money again and again and again,” Bordsen said.
The bill is expected to be taken up in the General Assembly’s 2012 short session.

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