Raleigh, N.C. — As Rep. Chuck McGrady introduced House Bill 280 to the House Appropriations Committee on Thursday morning, he noted that not only had a majority of the committee signed on as co-sponsors, but that Senate leaders had also taken the unusual step of including a House policy bill in their budget proposal, albeit with some changes.
"I think it tells you that the Senate and the House directionally really have an agreement on the bill," said McGrady, R-Henderson. "I think the bill is, at this point, a lot about the money."
It's taken many years for the Juvenile Justice Reinvestment Act, better known as the "Raise the Age" bill, to gather a critical mass of support. Session after session, children's and civil rights advocates argued that the state's treatment of 16- and 17-year-old offenders as adults was archaic and counterproductive. But legislative leaders, hearing opposition from law enforcement and prosecutors, opted not to move on legislation they feared might make them appear soft on crime.
However, that concern seems to have shifted this year. In part, that's because the state's judiciary has thrown its weight behind the change after an intensive 18-month study, with Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Martin, a Republican, calling it his top legislative priority.
It's also noteworthy that, as of May, North Carolina is now the last state in the nation to try 16- and 17-year-olds charged with crimes as adults.
"Forty-nine other states have done this," McGrady pointed out more than once.
The change will be costly. It will require the construction of new custody beds for juvenile offenders this fiscal year at an estimated cost of $25.3 million. The capital costs pale in comparison to the operational price tag, beginning in fiscal year 2020-21 when the change would be fully in effect in the House bill, of $44.3 million per year.
Most of that money would go to the Division of Juvenile Justice, which would absorb more than 21,000 charges from adult court. The juvenile system is more time-intensive but is better connected to schools and mental health resources and can compel family involvement. About one-third of those cases would be diverted. The remainder would require 239 more court counselors statewide to handle juvenile cases and an additional 198 staff for detention facilities, supervision and administration, all within the Division of Juvenile Justice, at an estimated cost of $41.6 million.
Additionally, the change would cost the Administrative Office of Courts an estimated $2.3 million yearly for three more district court judges, seven more deputy clerks, five more assistant district attorneys and seven more legal assistants.
Rep. Sarah Stevens, R-Surry, said she opposes the bill because it would require counties to allocate additional space and resources with no guarantee of state assistance, which she called an "unfunded mandate."
AOC spokesman Tom Murry responded that the impact would likely be minimal.
"The space issue for county courthouses is not a new issue," Murry told the committee. "There are some counties that needed to build a new county courthouse 100 years ago."
Juvenile Justice Deputy Secretary Bill Lassiter added that the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners supports the bill and has made raising the age one of its top priorities for the session.
"There are lots of counties in this state that don’t even have a [juvenile] court counselor. This gives them an additional resource that the state provides to them," Lassiter explained.
While Fiscal Research staff said the change would have little net effect on the adult justice system in the near term, bill supporters argued that three different studies commissioned by the legislature over the years have all shown substantial long-term savings, thanks to reduced recidivism and smaller jail populations, as well as increased employment and educational opportunities for 16- and 17-year old offenders no longer saddled with an adult criminal record.
However, the change will put more pressure on a judicial system that's already understaffed. The AOC estimates the state is 74 assistant district attorneys short of what's needed to handle the workload. That's led some district attorneys to oppose the bill, like District Attorney Ashley Welch, who traveled from the far western border of the state to express her concerns to the committee.
"We have to be funded adequately in order for this change to mean anything," Welch, the top prosecutor for Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Haywood, Jackson, Macon and Swain counties, told the committee. "I’m short seven [ADAs], and we are drowning. We already have to cancel court in my district because we haven’t been funded adequately."
That concern was echoed by Rep. Mickey Michaux, D-Durham, who noted that the measure as written doesn't reserve the funds that will be needed to implement it by 2020.
"Somewhere down the line, we’re going to have to fully fund or make room to fully fund this," Michaux said. "I don’t like partially funding this and then coming back and having to do it again."
McGrady said he will do what he can to ensure that counties have the resources required to carry out the change, but added, "You’ve got to get the bill and the policy in place first."
"Let’s don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good," added co-sponsor Rep. Bill Brawley, R-Mecklenburg.
The bill, which has sailed through several committees with no apparent opposition, did receive several loud "no" votes Thursday morning. Nonetheless, it passed with a strong majority and is expected to be heard on the House floor later this month.