Led by the chief justice of the state Supreme Court, a phalanx of court and education officials, law enforcement and politicians from both political parties stepped up their effort on Monday to stop trying teenagers as adults in criminal court.
North Carolina is set to become the only state in the country that automatically prosecutes in adult court defendants as young as 16 who are accused of minor, nonviolent offenses – a record generally available online that will follow them the rest of their lives.
“What we’re proposing is a very modest revision of our law,” Chief Justice Mark Martin said in a news conference packed with supporters in the Legislative Building. “It is simply: When our teenagers are accused of nonviolent offenses that they are not automatically tried in adult court.”
Nearly 97 percent of convictions of 16- and 17-year-olds in 2014 were for misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies, according to the Administrative Office of the Courts.
The effort to raise the age has failed in the General Assembly for several years, but this year’s version – House Bill 280 – has widespread backing in the criminal justice system as well as from key state legislators, including the chairman of the House Rules Committee.
No committee has so far taken up the bill, which was filed in early March, but supporters say that’s about to change. It should begin to move through committees within the next 10 days, said Tom Murry, chief legal counsel for the Administrative Office of the Courts.
Martin, a Republican, said the courts administration has made it a top priority this year.
There are already 11 county programs in the state that divert defendants into the juvenile justice system.
“When you have young people in 89 counties being treated one way and then folks in another 11 counties being treated another way, you know, we could call that unequal justice,” Martin said. “That’s one of the gravest forms of injustice for any legal system.”
New York had been the only other state that treated teenagers like North Carolina does, but last month Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a “raise the age” bill that will take effect by 2019.
North Carolina’s HB 280 did not have to meet last week’s deadline for bills to move from the House to the Senate or vice-versa, because the bill has financial implications. Estimated costs, such as for a new youth prison, counselors and prosecutors, are still being calculated.