It first appeared in a release sent to media by CMPD on Jan. 16 about two teenage boys who had carjacked a man at gunpoint in the Ashford Place apartment complex in southwest Charlotte.
After describing how the two boys pulled a gun on the victim and drove off in his car before later being found and arrested, the release stated, “Both suspects were 17-year-old males and were charged as juveniles due to ‘Raise the Age’ legislation placed into effect in late 2019.”
The statement was a reference to legislation that went into effect on Dec. 1, 2019, that made it so that 16- and 17-year-olds charged with crimes were no longer automatically charged as adults and would be held in custody at North Detention Center, as opposed to Mecklenburg County Jail with the adult population. The legislation was passed with bipartisan support from all three branches of government and many law enforcement groups. In fact, North Carolina was the last state in the country to pass Raise the Age legislation.
But the releases seemed to be hinting that there was a problem.
The department continued to reference the legislation in press releases such as one from Jan. 18: “Five Teenagers Charged as Juveniles in Armed Carjacking.” Then on Jan. 20: “Three Teenagers Shoot, Rob Teenage Victim during Drug Transaction.” Every few days, the department would work in a reference to Raise the Age, until on Feb. 5, they came out and said it.
At a CMPD press conference held that day, the department brought on Maj. Mike Campagna to discuss the effects of Raise the Age, citing requests for data from local media. Campagna stated that, at that point, there had been 38 violent cases involving juveniles aged 16 or 17 since the legislation went into effect, 32 of which were armed robberies and one was a murder.
He referred to the “burden” that Raise the Age has put on CMPD officers.
“When you have a juvenile in the system, they have a lot more rights and protections and there’s a lot more time involved in dealing with juveniles, so a simple arrest of an adult may take two hours when you get to the jail, a simple arrest of a juvenile may take five hours to get them through the process,” he said. “Understandable when you’re dealing with a juvenile, but we have to manage that time, and it’s well known that we’re already strapped for manpower. So it does create a burden for us, but I can assure you that we’re working through it.”
A reporter then asked Campagna whether Raise the Age would be harmful or hurtful from a law-enforcement standpoint.
“That’s a challenge,” he answered. “I believe the spirit of the law is that we put juveniles in a different environment when they come into contact with the criminal justice system, so hopefully long term what we find is kids aren’t spending time incarcerated learning to become better criminals. They have different opportunities, they have different interventions. That’s our hope for the long term. Short term it’s a challenge, because a lot of our violence unfortunately does occur at the hands of young people … so we have to be able to balance those two things; think about those long-term goals, getting kids out of the system early and hopefully they don’t get back into the system, but in the short term we have to deal with dangerous people who happen to be 16 and 17 years old.”
The response was predictable. In the Facebook comments of the press conference live-stream, a user named Kevin Boyd was the first to sound off: “These juvys[sic] get away with it all. They know there’s no punishment. There has to be some new laws enacted for juveniles who routinely break the law.”
That night, WCNC ran a story in which reporter Alex Shabad stated, “Since the law passed, police say it’s too early to tell about the long-term impact, but it’s already having a short-term impact,” before going into a story about two teenagers committing a violent crime spree that ended in an attempted carjacking in Ballantyne. One of the suspects was 17 years old.
“I had no idea he was a 17-year-old guy until the middle of the day,” said resident Burton Fulton, who held the suspect at gunpoint along with another neighbor, who then shot the suspect. “To me he just looked like a big guy who was there to do bad things.”
It’s the kind of quote that reporters love, as it ties right in with the narrative that Raise the Age has left Charlotte police dealing with a growing population of violent teenagers. But that’s a false narrative.
The idea that anyone has to “deal with” violent teens in some new way, as Campagna stated, is built on a misconception that Raise the Age is allowing violent criminals back out onto the streets.
In reality, Raise the Age only changes the process through which people aged 16 or 17 who have been charged with crimes go through the system. Suspects in violent crimes — those who have been charged with felonies ranging in class from A-G, including murder, rape, robbery and assault — are sent directly to superior court to face those charges, as has always been the case.
Those charged with H or I felonies — including larceny, domestic violence and fraud — or other crimes may face the Superior Court but will most likely be sent through the juvenile justice system.
Dr. Keith Cradle, youth program director with the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office, cleared it up for us when we sat down with him and Sheriff Garry McFadden recently.
“It’s the same court system, I think people are just neglecting that fact,” he said. “The fact is just that they’re under the juvenile system, and those cases will go through juvenile court, meaning that there could be possibly less time and they won’t be charged as adults.” He added that the suspect may have a chance to have a charge taken off their record as an adult, in certain circumstances.
McFadden emphasized that charges do not change based on age under the new law.
“We’re going to not place 17 year olds down in the same facility with adults. They still get charged with the crime.,” he said. “If a 16-year-old shoots and kills someone, he is going to be charged with murder, he’s not going to be charged with junior murder. Now he’s going to be housed differently, because he’s not going to be housed with the 35-year-old murderer downtown, and that’s the difference.”
Cradle has been working with McFadden on a number of progressive programs, such as his Camp Cradle summer recreation program, a full-service high school and barber training at the detention center where juveniles are held. For McFadden, having access to those programs and keeping young suspects separate from the adult ones in Uptown is key.
“I think that’s where people get mixed up by saying that it is a different program, then all of a sudden we’ve got more violent youth,” McFadden said. “It’s the same thing happening, we’re just housing them, placing them differently. I’m speaking not from research, I’m speaking from experience. These kids that I dealt with in the ’90s, in the 2000s, they were violent kids then too, we’re just treating them differently, as we should, and then we give them a better platform to spring from.”