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NC lawmakers ‘raised the age.’ Now they must pay for it

Boys play basketball at a North Carolina juvenile detention facility.
Boys play basketball at a North Carolina juvenile detention facility. TRAVIS LONG

In 2017, our legislators wisely passed perhaps the most important legislation affecting N.C.’s juvenile court system in over 100 years. The “Raise the Age” legislation raised the age of juvenile court jurisdiction from 16 to 18, ending North Carolina’s distinction of being the very last state in the nation to automatically treat 16- and 17-year-olds as adults in court.

This legislation creates a level playing field for North Carolina’s youth, acknowledging that mounds of research clearly show that when treated as juveniles, 16- and 17-year-olds fare much better long term. This research shows in part that 16- and 17-year-olds who are treated in juvenile courts do not re-offend as often as do their peers who are handled in the adult court system. Thank you to legislators for doing this to benefit our youngest citizens.

That said, their job is not over. Now comes the decisions that will fund this important law. Inadequate funding will not create the level playing field lawmakers intended. Under this new law taking effect Dec. 1, the number of juveniles in N.C. courts will likely double. This will require more resources to effectively manage these youth. This includes more courtrooms, more judges, more prosecutors, more defense lawyers, more court staff, more facilities, and more community resources to provide services for our youth. Without adequate funding, we will see disastrous results. It’s just common sense.

We understand that this year’s budget is a challenging one. There are many important priorities and as usual only limited dollars. That said, the Juvenile Justice Advisory Committee that the legislature put into place has studied carefully what it will take to make this important law work. Part of its study was related to funding. After thoughtful analysis, the committee recommended $50.7 million in additional funds for the upcoming fiscal year, and approximately $60 million for fiscal year 2021. The amounts being discussed by lawmakers at this point, however, are nearly half of those amounts. Let’s be clear: you cannot double the size of your house without paying for it! It just cannot be done the way it needs to be without adequate resources.

Our legislators took the bold and courageous step in 2017 to bring North Carolina into the 21st century by improving its juvenile justice system. But the job isn’t done. Without adequate funding, they are creating the likelihood of horrific outcomes for our kids and their families. Don’t quit now. Provide the funding for the state’s young people. Follow the recommendations of those you put in place to make this work. Fully fund Raise the Age.

Crawford wrote this on behalf of The Children’s Alliance of Charlotte-Mecklenburg, a coalition of agencies serving at-risk children and youth.