Confronting the Status Quo: Raising the Age of Juvenile Jurisdiction in North Carolina

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Cook, Philip J

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POLICY QUESTION (p.1) How can the case for increasing juvenile-status age in North Carolina be presented most effectively in the political arena? I. INTRODUCTION (p.1) North Carolina is one of two states (the other being New York) that end juvenile jurisdiction at age sixteen. This means that all sixteen and seventeen-year olds are processed as adults in the criminal justice system. Trying and sentencing youth as adults in the criminal system has serious and broad consequences for the offenders, their families, the criminal justice systems, and society at large. Youth in adult facilities are more prone to abuse; are less likely to receive health treatment and educational services; are more likely to join gangs and engage in violent behavior, and are more likely to recidivate. Further, adult convictions hinder access to employment and educational opportunities—two key sources that reduce the tendency to engage in criminal behavior. II. HISTORICAL DEVELOPMENT (p.4) The age of juvenile court jurisdiction in North Carolina is an old and contentious issue with much at stake. North Carolina set the maximum age of juvenile jurisdiction at age sixteen in 1919, over 90 years ago. The juvenile-status age has been looked at a number of times; however, all proposals to increase the status age have failed (See Figure 2, pg. 16 for synopsis). Most recently, proposals in 2007 and 2009 faced opposition from district attorneys, sheriffs and police chiefs, and the Retail Merchant Association. Opponents cited the high financial costs to transition the 16 and 17-year-old cohort to the juvenile system, arguing that the juvenile system is already overcrowded, underfunded, and understaffed. Although the two separate cost-benefit-analyses conducted indicated a substantial long-term net gain from increasing the juvenile-status age, no change was made.

The policymaking process is adversarial, where competing agendas and conflicting interests and perspectives can transcend rational or objective solutions to particular problems. Influential actors and interest groups often oppose policy initiatives irrespective of what evidence and policy research indicates. Opposition to raising the age in North Carolina is indeed still significant and presents a legitimate barrier to successful legislative action. III. POLITICAL ANALYSIS (p.17) A Political Analysis involves looking closely at the actors in the policy environment, disaggregating them, identifying how they exert influence towards or against policy initiatives, and developing strategies to effectively communicate and interact with them. Thus, by examining the primary actors in the policy environment (through in-depth targeted stakeholder interviews) and disaggregating and identifying their values, concerns, and the interests that motivate their positions, I gained insight into the kinds of compromises and political bargaining that can be made to effectively present the case for increasing the juvenile status-age in the political arena. The primary stakeholders and influential actors identified are district attorneys, sheriffs and police chiefs, and the Retail Merchant Association. The conclusions derived from the political analysis are organized into three categories: (1) Resources & Hollow Promises, (2) Different Perspectives: Different Realities, and (3) Access to Records Resources & Hollow Promises (p.18) A resource-constraint has been a consistent barrier to legislative action in regards to raising the age of juvenile jurisdiction. Shifting sixteen and seventeen year olds to the juvenile system from the adult system will indeed cost a lot of money. This was detailed in the CBAs from 2009 and 2011, and proponents certainly acknowledge the cost issue. Despite this acknowledgement however, interview data reveals a stringent skepticism toward the General Assembly in regards to providing necessary funding and resources. This skepticism is based on multiple previous experiences where the legislature failed to follow through with their agreements. Indeed, opponent skepticism toward the General Assembly in this light is a legitimate issue that proponents need to address appropriately and effectively in order to gain support from key influential stakeholders. Different Perspectives: Different Realities (p.20) In addition to citing an underfunded juvenile system, opponents also referred to the system as too lenient, alluding also to its poor performance in rehabilitating young offenders. There is a strong perception that being in a youth facility and in the custody of the juvenile system is “easier” than being in an adult prison—which, accordingly, encourage criminal behavior for young offenders. This could indeed be a matter of perception, and more research should be conducted in regards to claims and counterclaims about the actual “toughness” of the juvenile system. There is also the concern of violent young offenders avoiding adult court if the status age is increased. The current legislation that is to be heard however, does not suggest this to be the case. Violent offenses can still be transferred to the adult system. This demonstrates, in part, that opponents do not fully understand the Raise the Age bill, which addresses misdemeanors and low-level felonies. Judge Morey suggested that despite all the education that has taken place over the last decade, law enforcement and district attorneys still do not all realize that violent offenders can still be automatically tried and sentenced as adults. In turn, this signals a failure by proponents to adequately communicate and educate opposing stakeholders on the bill and what it entails.

Access To Records (p.22) The Retail Merchant Association is an influential player in the political arena regarding this particular issue. The Association’s opposition to increasing the juvenile-status age is based on a legitimate issue, representing a particularly unique challenge in gaining their support to raise the age. The North Carolina business community is accustomed to having access to the criminal histories of the 16 and 17-year-old cohort. If the juvenile-status age were increased to 18, business entities would not have access to 16 and 17 year olds’ criminal histories—an age group that many businesses in North Carolina rely on—because under the law, juvenile records are sealed. Another component to issue involves tort law. Juries have previously held businesses liable for not screening their employees appropriately. Thus, having the ability to conduct background checks and screen potential employees is of paramount importance to the business community in North Carolina. IV. CONCLUSIONS & RECOMMENDATIONS (pp.24-26) There have been a series of proposals to change the age of juvenile jurisdiction over the last century. Opposition to changing the juvenile-status age has varied by group across time, but the lack of resources—funding, facilities, facility capacity and capabilities, personnel and related workforce, or any combination of these—has routinely formed the basis for excluding sixteen and seventeen year olds from the juvenile justice system. A resource-constraint issue is still at the heart of the debate today and there is a strong skepticism toward lawmakers among district attorneys and members of the law enforcement community in particular, based on past funding abandonments by the legislature. Perceptions of a lenient, underfunded and ineffective juvenile system among opposing stakeholders are also prevalent. District attorneys and the Retail Merchant Association are two of the strongest opponents to raising the age. Both coalitions have legitimate concerns regarding the bill to raise the age; however, their opposition can be neutralized using strategies of modification—a process that involves altering the policy proposal to align with stakeholder interests and preferences as a way to build support and neutralize opposition. This can occur through compromises and political bargaining.

To present the most effective case for increasing the juvenile-status age in North Carolina, I recommend Ms. Katzenelson and the North Carolina Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission do the following:

(1) Tie legislation to an Appropriation

Without the proper funding, increasing the juvenile-status age will not succeed in achieving its purpose. Shifting 16 and 17 year olds to the juvenile system to receive treatment and have access to educational opportunities will reduce recidivism and save taxpayers millions of dollars. However, the programs need to be implemented and supervised accordingly in order to make the impact they are designed to have. Requiring the “raise the age” bill to be tied to an appropriation will help satisfy legitimate concerns about inadequate resources.

(2) Utilize Prosecutorial Waivers

Modify the bill to appeal to prosecutors—a strong and influential coalition that currently opposes the bill. Enhancing DA discretion in their prosecutorial duties will give them more flexibility and control, satisfying their primary concerns. Gaining DA support will also help the implementation process. This recommendation should be considered carefully and the Committee should investigate the states that use this waiver.

(3) Negotiate Terms & Conditions for Access to Criminal Histories for the Business Community

Providing employer access to juvenile records under certain terms and conditions would substantially reduce opposition from the Retail Merchant Association. Access to records is their only and primary concern. Negotiating a practice that gives employers access while also protecting the privacy of the offender will not only eliminate this particular opposition, but it may also create buy-in and support. This modification represents a significant concession on the part of proponents and if not considered carefully, it could represent a pyrrhic victory where the fundamental purpose of raising the age is jeopardized.

(4) Communicate & Educate

Advocacy efforts must continue to educate all stakeholders, with special attention geared toward law enforcement. There are still a number of misperceptions, such as the leniency of the juvenile system and its ability to help rehabilitate young offenders. Stakeholders need to be convinced that these programs work when implemented and executed properly.

Constant attention should be paid to the way advocacy groups in North Carolina discuss and frame this issue. In Connecticut, the campaign to raise the age faced similar opposition with members from the law enforcement community. One of their strategies was framing the issue in terms of public safety and investing in kids. While adolescent brain development is an important issue that supports increasing the status age, it is an argument that appeals to some, but not all stakeholders. Interview data suggests that this argument is not compelling for members of law enforcement and DA’s because it does not directly coincide with their primary concerns and daily activities.





Kaplan, David (2012). Confronting the Status Quo: Raising the Age of Juvenile Jurisdiction in North Carolina. Master's project, Duke University. Retrieved from

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