State Politics

Raise-the-age bill gains steam in one of the last states to prosecute 16-year-olds as adults

A juvenile sleeps on a bunk in a segregation unit at Dobbs Youth Development Center in Kinston on May 6, 2003.
A juvenile sleeps on a bunk in a segregation unit at Dobbs Youth Development Center in Kinston on May 6, 2003. Scott Sharpe

After decades of work and some failed attempts, there’s considerable steam behind an effort to give the juvenile criminal-justice system jurisdiction over 16- and 17-year-olds so they have a chance to bounce back from nonviolent crimes and low-level offenses.

Rep. Chuck McGrady, a Henderson County Republican, on Wednesday filed House Bill 280, the Juvenile Justice Reinvestment Act. The bill establishes that a 16- or 17-year-old who commits certain crimes will be tried as a juvenile – not as an adult. North Carolina is one of two states that automatically prosecute people as young as 16 as adults.

Violent felonies and some drug offenses would still be considered in adult court.

Previous attempts to raise the age passed the House but foundered in the Senate.

“The main question is: why now?” said Rep. Duane Hall, a Wake County Democrat and the primary sponsor of the bill. “We’ve got everybody on board – I mean from the chief justice, chamber of commerce, bankers association, sheriffs, police – it seems like the world’s behind it. We do surveys and polls and it’s over 90 percent of the public in both rural and urban areas.”

The bill has a bipartisan list of 30 co-sponsors and four primary sponsors – including House Rules Chairman David Lewis, a Harnett County Republican.

“The only people I’ve seen against it are because they don’t understand that it doesn’t include those violent felonies. The only opposition I’ve heard are people who said things like ‘drug dealers,’ ” Hall said. “But this bill excludes those types of violations.”

In the past, sheriffs and prosecutors have objected that the juvenile-justice system is inadequately funded to take on more teenagers.

The coalition pushing the change this year claims on its website the endorsement of the N.C. Sheriffs’ Association, and put out a statement quoting Mecklenburg County Sheriff Irwin Carmichael. “I believe that raising the age in North Carolina would help steer young people away from a life potentially spent in the criminal justice system,” Carmichael said.

The sheriffs’ group has endorsed a broader set of recommendations from a commission established by N.C. Chief Justice Mark Martin, which includes raising the age for certain crimes. But the sheriffs’ group doesn’t take an explicit stance on raising the age. It says it supports the broader recommendations, which also address how to adequately pay for raising the age.

Eddie Caldwell, executive vice president and general counsel for the Sheriffs’ Association, said the group would review the new bill. Raising the age without addressing problems in the system and securing adequate funding “would be a disaster,” he said.

During a news conference to introduce the bill, Administrative Office of the Courts director Marion Warren said one of the most difficult parts of working with youth in the justice system is seeing “someone that commits an offense that you see is from the sheer folly of youth and the lack of maturity, and that offense carries with them the rest of their lives.”

Hall said that as a lawyer he’s had teens in his office crying after finding out a nonviolent felony conviction would preclude them from joining the military or getting financial aid for college. “The background is I used to be a juvenile defender for a lot of years. I represented kids in the courtroom that were charged as adults,” Hall said after the news conference.

Hall noted that in 2014 just 3.3 percent of 16- and 17-year-olds who went in front of a judge in North Carolina were convicted of violent felonies. And state Juvenile Justice Director William Lassiter said juvenile crime has fallen 30 percent over the past 10 years.

McGrady said in the short term – three to five years – it could cost hundreds of millions of dollars to get the proposal up and running, considering the state would have to construct additional facilities. Gov. Roy Cooper’s budget has proposed an additional youth detention center for that purpose.

States that have raised the age, however, have found it to be cost-effective. Studies have found keeping teens out of adult prisons make them less likely to return to crime.

The Wisconsin Council on Children and Families found a $5.8 million savings for every 1,000 youth that were returned to the juvenile justice system, with the savings coming in the form of reduced costs to the justice system and crime victims.

Cooper, a Democrat, said in a statement Wednesday that the change would give “young people an opportunity to turn away from a life of crime.”

Republican U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis – a former state House speaker – tweeted his support Wednesday: “Happy to see NC continuing to lead the way on juvenile justice reforms w/ @ChuckMcGrady’s Juvenile Justice Reinvestment Act. #RaiseTheAgeNC”

Clifton Dowell of the N.C. Insider contributed to this report.

Lauren Horsch: 919-836-2801, @LaurenHorsch