State Politics

‘Raise The Age’ bill to keep teens out of adult court passes NC House 104-8

A “Raise The Age” bill to take some teenagers out of the adult court system passed the N.C. House Wednesday in a 104-8 vote.

House Bill 280 would allow a 16- or 17-year-old who commits certain crimes to be tried as a juvenile – not as an adult. North Carolina is the only remaining state that automatically prosecutes people as young as 16 as adults. Violent felonies and some drug offenses would still be handled in adult court.

Similar bills have passed the House in previous years, but this year’s effort has backing from law enforcement and N.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Martin. After Wednesday’s House vote, the bill goes to the Senate, where Republican leaders have included similar legislation in the budget bill passed last week.

“This bill is supported by a broad coalition of groups, including some groups that have in the past opposed the legislation,” said the bill’s sponsor, Republican Rep. Chuck McGrady of Hendersonville. “You don’t often see the ACLU and the (conservative) John Locke Foundation join together. Raising the age will make North Carolina safer.”

Eight Republicans voted against the bill, and some said they were concerned about the extra costs of putting teens in the juvenile justice system.

“I still do not have an answer for where the funding is coming from,” said Rep. Beverly Boswell, a Dare County Republican who ultimately voted for the bill. “Why are we going to pass a bill if we can’t complete our task?”

McGrady, who is one of the House budget writers, says the spending plan will address the needs, but some long-term costs aren’t entirely clear yet. “Part of the issue in the past was we were trying to raise the age at a time the budget was in pretty poor shape,” he said. “We’re aware that we’re going to have to respond to how this bill works on the ground.”

An estimate from the nonpartisan legislative staff found that the bill will cost $25.3 million in the first year, with the cost increasing to $44.3 million in 2020. The funding would be needed to hire additional prosecutors and add space in juvenile correctional facilities.

Much of Wednesday’s House debate centered on the types of crimes that would be moved to juvenile court. While proponents of the change argued that youthful mistakes – one example involved throwing mayonnaise-filled balloons – shouldn’t come with a permanent record, others worried that some violent crimes might not be adequately punished. Rep. Jeff Collins, a Rocky Mount Republican, described a scenario in which a teenager angry about pension changes might stab State Treasurer Dale Folwell and avoid an adult court prosecution.

Rep. Larry Pittman, a Concord Republican and opponent of the bill, said he wants to protect the rights and safety of his constituents, and “I don’t believe we can do that by going soft on crime. One of those is the right not to be robbed.”

McGrady stressed that the bill would transfer violent crimes back to adult courts, and prosecutors and victims can ask a judge to move cases to 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.

McGrady said the change has reduced crime in other states and made juvenile offenders less likely to commit crimes after their sentence is complete. “When other states raises the age, juvenile crime dropped,” he said. “You look to other states and you realize what the benefits are here.”

But Pittman said North Carolina shouldn’t follow the lead of other states. “Standing alone does not mean you’re wrong,” he said. “Should we be lemmings running off the cliff into the sea just because 49 other states have done so?”

The House and Senate will likely work together on a final version of the “Raise the Age” plan. The Senate budget doesn’t include any funding for the proposal because its provision would delay the change until 2020.

“If any of you will admit to having friends in the Senate side, at least talk to them,” Rep. Duane Hall, a Raleigh Democrat, told his colleagues.

Colin Campbell: 919-829-4698, @RaleighReporter