Raise the Age: NC juvenile justice leader wants more funding to prevent teen crime

CHARLOTTE — Many Charlotte residents, elected leaders, and even the police chief say it’s clear something needs to change to help curb juvenile crime. They say frankly, what we’re doing doesn’t seem to be enough.

So Channel 9′s Hunter Sáenz drove to Raleigh to ask the top juvenile justice official about all of it. He was direct when talking about the system’s flaws and what’s needed to fix them.

Community Crisis: Kids & Crime

‘Running amok’

Police said Heather McGraw was robbed last summer by a 12-year-old and a 6-year-old at gunpoint in southwest Charlotte.

“That was unnerving itself,” she said. “How does a child rob you, and furthermore, how does a child have a weapon?”

She didn’t know it at the time, but the gun pointed at her was actually a BB gun. But that fact doesn’t matter to her; she’s still fed up with the growing trend of children and teens being suspects in Charlotte crimes.

“They’re just out here running amok!” McGraw said.

Who’s to blame?

William Lassiter is the deputy director for North Carolina Juvenile Justice.

“Across the state, we’ve seen an increase in juvenile crime over the last three years,” he told Sáenz.

Lassiter said over the last couple of years, there’s been a 20% increase in juvenile crime in North Carolina and a 23% increase in kids committing violent crimes.

“My goal is to prevent these kids from committing crimes in the first place,” he said.

The state’s juvenile justice system saw an increase in referrals back in 2019. That’s when North Carolina’s Raise the Age law took effect, adding 16 and 17-year-olds to the juvenile justice system.

Lassiter doesn’t blame that policy for the recent rise in teen crime.

“Absolutely not,” he said. “If Raise the Age was the problem, then why [does] every other state that had already passed Raise the Age 20 years ago -- Why did they also all suddenly increase in juvenile crime?

Instead, he blames the pandemic, which caused years of North Carolina’s children not getting the support they needed.

“Now when those kids have returned back to school, we’re seeing some of the byproducts of that,” Lassiter said. “Those problems that were small problems that we could call it early on, have grown into bigger problems with a lot of these young people.”

Lassiter also feels there’s been a funding failure from state lawmakers. He said they’re not putting enough money toward crucial programs for teens headed down the wrong path. He said those are resources that should have come with Raise the Age.

“I don’t think it’s fair to say that the policy is bad if you didn’t fully fund the policy, right?” Lassiter said.

A bigger problem?

Lassiter believes in accountability, but also in treatment and education. With 50% of juveniles in the system diagnosed with five or more mental health conditions, he believes we must look within to solve it.

“What that tells me is that there was some plays earlier in the system, that we should have been serving that kid to make sure that those mental health problems didn’t grow into criminal behavior,” he said.

“We as a community weren’t accountable to those kids in the first place to make sure they had the services that they needed to be successful,” he added.

They’re services Heather McGraw would support, too. She wants the child in her robbery case to learn his lesson while also getting on the right track.

“If you give them the resources showing them that there’s more out there, there’s more help out there, you’ll be better off,” she said.

Lassiter said juvenile crime did go down the last half of last year in Charlotte. He feels we are turning the corner.

He also told Sáenz he doesn’t mind looking at the Raise the Age law with lawmakers to see where tweaks may be needed, but he’s adamant that a lack of funding is the main issue driving this young crime wave.

(WATCH BELOW: Youth gun violence: Why is it happening and how can it be stopped?)

Hunter Sáenz

Hunter Sáenz, wsoctv.com

Hunter is a reporter for Channel 9.

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