State Politics

Keeping teenagers out of adult court carries a price tag

Chief Justice Martin pushes to raise the age for adult criminal prosecution to 18

Chief Justice Mark Martin and other officials push to raise the age for adult criminal court from 16 to 18 in Raleigh Monday.
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Chief Justice Mark Martin and other officials push to raise the age for adult criminal court from 16 to 18 in Raleigh Monday.

Few state lawmakers want North Carolina to be the only state left that still automatically tries teenagers in adult court.

But some are hesitant to to reshuffle the state’s separate adult and juvenile justice systems when no one knows where the money will come from to pay for the change.

Despite those misgivings, the House Appropriations Committee on Thursday in a split voice vote moved ahead with House Bill 280, which would raise the age of juvenile court jurisdiction to include 16- and 17-year-olds, except for violent felonies.

Moving those teenagers into the juvenile system would cost money, beginning with building a 96-bed youth detention center estimated to cost $25 million next year.

Bill sponsors acknowledged that a funding source hasn’t been identified yet.

There would be no additional revenue required in the following year, but in the third year another $29.5 million would be needed to hire staff. Subsequent funding of $44 million annually is projected.

Rep. Mickey Michaux, a Democrat from Durham, said it would be better to find the money up front rather than piecemeal appropriations over several years. But Rep. William Brawley, a Republican from Matthews, said some of the General Assembly’s best achievements have been funded through an ongoing series of bills from year to year, allowing legislators to see what works.

Rep. Chuck McGrady, a Republican from Hendersonville and bill sponsor, said money will have to be found during the upcoming budget process, otherwise it wouldn’t make sense to pass it.

Also at Thursday’s meeting, Ashley Welch, the district attorney for seven western counties, said the N.C. Conference of District Attorneys has not taken a position on the bill. She also called for adequate funding.

The Senate included in its budget a similar raise-the-age law, but it is more restrictive, limiting the protections for juveniles to misdemeanors.

North Carolina is set to become the last state to stop automatically trying juveniles as adults. The chief justice of North Carolina’s Supreme Court supports the bill, calling it one of the top priorities in the state’s criminal justice system.

The bill goes next to the full House.

Craig Jarvis: 919-829-4576, @CraigJ_NandO

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