CMPD Chief: Amid a juvenile crime wave, my officers can’t keep playing catch and release | Opinion

What should be the age of criminal responsibility? All 50 states say it should be age 18, and North Carolina was last to pass “Raise the Age” legislation, which took effect Dec. 1, 2019. It means 16 and 17-year-olds charged with nonviolent offenses are no longer automatically tried as adults or sent to adult jails or prisons

The reasoning for Raise the Age was well-intentioned. Advocates argued that teen’s brains are still developing, contributing to diminished decision-making skills and impulse control. The state says juveniles have a 70% recidivism rate after serving in adult facilities, 37% for juvenile facilities.

But what emerged in Charlotte is a wave of juvenile crime fueled by a system of catch and release.

CMPD Chief Johnny Jennings
CMPD Chief Johnny Jennings

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department has been sounding the alarm for several years as data continues to show young people committing crimes at unprecedented levels. According to our Crime Analysis Division, in 2023 officers made more than 3,000 juvenile arrests, a 34% increase from the year prior. More than 100 juveniles were suspects in shooting investigations, up 33%.

When it comes to property crimes, the numbers are even higher. In 2023, officers made 835 juvenile auto theft arrests (up 192%), with juveniles accounting for approximately two-thirds of all auto theft arrests. Think about that — two out of every three vehicles stolen in Charlotte are stolen by someone who has not yet turned 18. What’s worse – juveniles are fueling the worst spike CMPD has ever seen in auto thefts in large part due to a social media challenge centered around Kia and Hyundai vehicles.

Raise the Age made sure that juveniles could not be incarcerated for auto theft — a nonviolent crime. But what about when a juvenile steals 17 vehicles in 12 months? (A real example in 2023.)

Nonviolent does not mean victimless, and the chaos created by larcenies from auto and auto thefts has a real impact on our city and shatters perceptions of safety. At what point do we say enough is enough?

On the streets, CMPD officers are asked to do a nearly impossible task — arrest the same individuals over and over again, knowing many will face little or no consequences. Our Juvenile Post-Arrest officers watch these children grow up from committing lower-level offenses at 11 or 12 years old to pulling triggers by the time they’re 15, 16 or 17. That is a sad reality.

At some point, we must protect the public from repeat offenders and protect repeat offenders from themselves. To have a 15-year-old compile 48 charges (another 2023 example) and be allowed back in the same environment with the same influences is a failure. It puts Charlotte citizens, the juvenile and CMPD officers in danger.

We see those dangers play out in real examples. On Sept. 28, 2022, an armed 14-year-old was breaking into vehicles and pointed a gun at a victim. When an officer arrived, the juvenile — who had 46 previous criminal cases — ran. During the chase, he shot the officer in the shoulder. The officer returned fire but did not hit the suspect. Other officers got the teen into custody, but what if the young man had been killed in the return fire?

So, what is the solution?

CMPD has 13 youth outreach programs with more than 800 annual participants all aimed at engaging with youth and helping put them on a path to success. Youth engagement programs alone will not significantly move the needle on lowering youth crime and violence. That doesn’t mean they aren’t making a difference: Upon completion of CMPD’s Youth Diversion program 95% of the participants have not reoffended.

I am not advocating we overturn Raise the Age or incarcerate more juveniles. That’s not the answer. Significant resources are needed.

Mecklenburg County’s only juvenile detention facility, Jail North, closed in 2019 for several reasons, including staffing and cost issues. The closest juvenile detention center is in Cabarrus County and has only 62 beds.

We stand with the state in support of reopening Jail North to support juvenile detention needs in Mecklenburg. I strongly advocate for more compensation for staff, and more programming and resources. We must address these issues holistically. We will not be able to arrest our way out of them. I am encouraged that the Charlotte City Council is meeting to address some of these issues. I recently met with N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper, Mecklenburg District Attorney Spencer Merriweather, N.C. Department of Public Safety Secretary Eddie Buffaloe, Deputy Secretary of the Juvenile Justice Department Bill Lassiter and others committed to developing and implementing solutions.

While the juvenile justice system faces challenges, we must work with our partners to invest in solutions that create positive changes and brighter futures for our young people.

Johnny Jennings has been chief of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department since July 2020.