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A second chance: City council approves expansion of juvenile justice building ahead of Raise the Age law

Updated: May. 23, 2019 at 2:03 PM EDT
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NEW HANOVER COUNTY, N.C. (WECT) - Wilmington City Council approved a special use permit application Tuesday to allow New Hanover County to expand its Juvenile Justice Center in downtown Wilmington by more than double its current size.

The Juvenile Justice Center is located at 138 N. Fourth St. The approval of the special use permit will allow the 15,100-square-foot-building to be redeveloped into a building more than twice its original size, in an effort to prepare for a new law that will go into effect statewide Dec. 1.

Beginning Dec. 1, 2019, those up to age 18 will be prosecuted as juveniles instead of adults, with the exception of violent felonies and traffic violations. Currently, the North Carolina Court System considers anyone age 16 and older an adult, and therefore they are charged as such.

Under the law change, New Hanover County and counties across the state expect to see a rise in juvenile cases, and will need more space for both court proceedings and in juvenile detention centers.

North Carolina is the last of the 50 states to treat people ages 16 and older as adults. In most other states, you have to be 18 years old to be charged as an adult and 17 in some states. Under Federal law, 18-year-olds are considered adults.

“We are welcoming this law change and many of us have fought hard to raise the juvenile age including me and Judge Corpening,” said New Hanover County District Attorney Ben David. "And the reason that we’ve done that is because while we want to make sure we are protecting the community we are also making sure that when there are teachable moments that young people can learn from it doesn’t permanently affect their ability to serve in the military, get into public housing, go to college, get a job. And that’s obviously what felonies and misdemeanors do for the rest of someone’s life when they get them.”

Both the court and law enforcement systems have been preparing for this change, which will bring challenges in terms of funding, manpower, and space.

“We’re currently looking at our policies and procedures to make those changes where necessary. Personnel movements where that is necessary to make this work,” said Detective Joe Smith with the Wilmington Police Department.

New Hanover and Pender counties anticipate 122 additional 16 and 17-year-olds who will suddenly be in the juvenile system rather than the adult system in the first year.

"If they need to be incarcerated, they can no longer be in our local jails. They have to be in state-run facilities. There has to be up to 15 different defendants at any given time on average. So that means these facilities need to be expanded. Not just the youth detention center facilities for their longer term incarcerations but for minor cases where they’re serving out minor sentences or awaiting trial and presumed innocent,” said David.

According to David, 97 percent of minors currently in the juvenile justice system are charged with non-violent felonies and misdemeanors.

“It’s only the elite three percent that we’re talking about that, of course, we want to make sure are still treated like adults and I intend to,” David said.

For the non-violent offenders, most in law enforcement, and the court system agree they deserve a second chance.

“For the 97 percent who are young offenders who are committing non-violent offenses we need to get that scarlet letter F for felony off their chest or M for misdemeanor because that’s holding them back. Even one non-violent conviction can have dramatic consequences on someone’s future earning potential or limit the ability of where they’re going to work or live or go to school. And we have a duty to make sure that if we have an opportunity to get them rehabilitated while protecting the community, we do everything we can to do that,” David said.

The cost of incarcerating a minor is greater than incarcerating an adult, but ultimately costs less in the long run, because rehabilitating minors leads to a lower recidivism rate.

“By giving the juvenile the therapeutic needs they need to correct the behavior ultimately it will cost less because hopefully we have removed them from the justice system,” Smith explained.

David said he and others met with the state legislature months ago and asked that the law not be passed unless it could be adequately funded.

"That means we need to invest more in the court system. And they need to invest more in the detention facilities. And I’m please to tell you those are happening,” David said.

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