Far too often, a teenager’s criminal conviction can end up ruining their lives—and costing North Carolina taxpayers millions. That’s because under current law, 16- and 17-year-olds are automatically tried as adults.
This year, lawmakers have the chance to pass “Raise the Age” legislation that could make a huge difference in teens’ lives. The bill would keep teens who commit minor, non-violent offenses out of adult courts. Passing this legislation is critical to the well-being of young North Carolinians and the future of the state. Raising the age could break the cycle of recidivism and give teens a second chance at life.
North Carolina is one of two states that automatically tries 16-year-olds charged with minor, non-violent offenses as adults. The other, New York, recently passed Raise the Age legislation that will go into effect in the coming years. Only 3 percent of the 16- and 17-year-olds convicted in North Carolina would have been tried as adults in other states.
Breaking the Cycle
A criminal record can create a “revolving door” of recidivism for teens. Once released or granted parole, a conviction can create a serious barrier to opportunity that keeps young men and women from reintegrating into society. Many employers won’t hire someone with a criminal record. That can create a cycle in which young people turn to a life of crime and wind up back in prison again and again.
Giving young people a second chance at life can make a huge difference. This year, Generation Opportunity hosted a panel on criminal justice reform at SXSW featuring rapper Snoop Dogg. He shared how, as a young man, a probation officer diverting him out of the prison system after a parole violation changed his life.
“[The probation officer] said, ‘I see you’re trying to do the right thing. Instead of me sending you to the penitentiary, I’m [going to] send you to the county for four months. When you get out, if you do good by me, I’ll let you off probation.’ I went for those four months, got out, and got a record deal.”
The True Cost of Incarceration
Opponents of “Raise the Age” point out that implementing the reforms would cost taxpayers $25 million for the first year to expand the juvenile justice system. In the long term though, it’s incarceration that is expensive. Each prisoner costs North Carolina taxpayers almost $30,000 a year. Raising the age would keep many teens out of prisons and get them into programs that help them become contributing members of society.
North Carolina’s budget is riddled with special interest handouts that cost far more than implementing “Raise the Age” legislation. Last year’s budget included $30 million in subsidies for movie and television companies that film in the state, even though study after study shows handouts like this don’t benefit the economy.
Instead of corporate welfare carve outs, North Carolina should make a real investment that will make a huge difference in teens’ lives and could save taxpayers millions. A study by the Vera Institute of Justice found that raising the age could benefit the state’s economy by $102 million per year thanks to lower recidivism rates. “These results indicate that the benefits of the plan outweigh the costs and that, from a cost-benefit standpoint, the policy change merits consideration,” the report states.
A Nonpartisan Issue
America has an incarceration problem. Since the 1970s, our state prison populations have grown 700 percent. It’s time for lawmakers to realize that in many cases, putting teens in prison for minor offences just creates more crime.
This is a nonpartisan issue, supported by everyone from law enforcement groups to the chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court. The bill has already passed the House with overwhelming bipartisan support. State senators should jump at this chance to break the cycle of recidivism and pass this Raise the Age bill.