Raise the Age: The crisis of North Carolina’s juvenile justice system

CHARLOTTE — It’s no secret that kids are committing an overwhelming amount of violent crimes in Charlotte.

Under Raise the Age, all criminal cases for suspects under the age of 18 start in juvenile court. Violent crimes like murder, armed robbery, or assault with a deadly weapon are automatically moved to adult court. By starting in juvenile court, the law gives prosecutors some discretion on whether to reduce charges before an indictment or probable cause hearing.

Channel 9 has covered various crimes in our community every day -- from car thefts to robberies, and even homicides. Often, those accused of the crimes are children or teenagers and later find themselves in a juvenile justice system that some say is not working the way it should. Advocates warn if we don’t act soon, we’ll have bigger problems.

In May of last year, a woman was robbed at the Coffey Creek Apartments. Police said a 12-year-old suspect pulled out a gun and pointed it at Heather McGraw. Channel 9 broke the story when it happened.

“He’s like ‘I’ll shoot you!’” she told Channel 9′s Hunter Sáenz.

McGraw spoke about what happened for the first time.

“It’s outrageous. It’s outrageous!” she said.

“It freaked me out ‘cause I didn’t expect a child to have a weapon,” she added.

It turned out to be a BB gun, but McGraw didn’t know that as she was staring down the barrel. She’s frustrated knowing she’s one of thousands of victims in Charlotte targeted by young kids.

“I don’t think they’re getting the proper consequences for the crimes that they’re doing,” she said.

‘Failing our young people’

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department said they arrested more than 3,000 juveniles just last year. Roughly 1,700 of those were repeat juvenile offenders -- 700 more repeat offenders than in 2022.

“You have to know that we’re failing our young people,” said CMPD Chief Johnny Jennings.

Jennings knows the juvenile justice system is complicated, but says it’s a system that’s not working as it should.

Community Crisis: Kids & Crime

Until 2019, 16 and 17-year-olds were charged as adults in North Carolina. But after Raise the Age took effect four years ago, they’re now tried as juveniles except for cases of violent crimes.

At the time, more than $110 million was requested to implement the law statewide, helping to fund things like reintegration programs, youth behavior specialists, therapy programs, detention and court staff, and more. But state lawmakers only approved $55.6 million.

“Is this whole Raise the Age law broken?” Sáenz asked Jennings.

“I don’t want to say it’s broken,” Chief Jennings replied. “You can’t raise the age and know you’re going to have an influx in more juveniles coming into the system without creating that infrastructure to support that.”

The DA’s perspective

“I think there’s a lot of things that need improvement,” said Mecklenburg County District Attorney Spencer Merriweather.

He agreed with the point Jennings made.

“Our current juvenile justice system does not have the capacity to deal in the way that most people would imagine,” he said.

Merriweather’s prosecutors have the difficult task of working these cases. He admits it’s a balancing act between accountability and getting some teens on the right track.

“It is possible to have detention facilities that have programming within it, giving that child what they need, and still making sure that these other children don’t have to see the person who shot up the house next door walking up and down the street,” Merriweather said. “I think that’s a realistic ask.”

The stakes

Sáenz asked Jennings what is at risk if the system stays as is.

“The cost is our future,” Jennings said. “These are going to end up escalating into adult violent offenders that we’re going to have to deal with a whole lot more down the road, and it’s going to cost us a whole lot more.”

McGraw says she agrees with the chief and is begging for action -- not for her, but for our kids.

“What you just did does not have to define your whole entire life,” McGraw told Sáenz. “Someone’s got to step in, someone’s got to find the money for these programs so that people get a fighting chance.”

She said she wants the 12-year-old suspect in her case, who police have dealt with before, to learn his lesson. If convicted, she wants him sentenced in an educational way, hoping that will prevent him from reoffending.

Hearing all those concerns, Sáenz traveled to Raleigh and sat down with the deputy secretary of juvenile justice for a frank conversation about the current impacts of the law.

>> Watch Part 2 on Tuesday, when you’ll hear what the deputy secretary says the issues are from inside the system and out, what can solve it, and if lawmakers should re-examine Raise the Age.

(WATCH BELOW: Community activists say juvenile laws need to change)

Hunter Sáenz

Hunter Sáenz, wsoctv.com

Hunter is a reporter for Channel 9.