Image courtesy apdk, flickr creative commons

North Carolina is one of only two states in the U.S. that prosecutes offenders under 18 in the adult legal system. Two bills would tweak that.

By Rose Hoban

Only two states in the country automatically prosecute youthful offenders as adults: North Carolina and New York.

One bill, HB 725, making its way through the legislature would change that, automatically making 16- and 17-year-olds who commit misdemeanors subject to prosecution in the juvenile justice system. Now, those teens automatically are tried in the adult system.

But another bill, HB 217, would make it possible for prosecutors to send teens from 13- to 15-years-old charged with felonies into the adult system. Previously, that has been a decision left up to judges.

Advocates for children’s health have long supported “raising the age” on juvenile defendants, defaulting young offenders into the juvenile justice system and reserving the adult system for offenders over the age of 18.

Image courtesy Donkey Hotey, flickr creative commons
Image courtesy Donkey Hotey, flickr creative commons

“Many North Carolina jails put children into danger,” said Wendy Green from the Incarcerated Youth Advocacy Project at Prison Legal Services, a statewide program. “Right now, 16- and 17-year-olds are at risk of being sexually assaulted in jails because they’re not separated from adults.”

“Our children who are in jails are far outnumbered by adults, which contributes to the imbalance of power and the vulnerability of children,” she said.

Green also noted that the Obama administration has told states that they’ll be held to increased scrutiny by the Prison Rape Elimination Act, a bill signed into law by President George Bush in 2003. States not meeting PREA compliance have been told they’ll lose federal prison support grants.

“To us, the simplest solution to all these problems is to raise the age for North Carolina for misdemeanants,” Green said.

Wrong place at the wrong time

In North Carolina to support the “raise the age” bill was Craig DeRoche of the Prison Fellowship project, a national organization that advocates for more Christian approaches to prison rehabilitation. He argued that prosecuting younger misdemeanants in the juvenile justice system also makes sense from a dollars-and-cents perspective.

“We find that conservatives that scrutinize and are diligent when they look into areas of government have started to turn their focus on the oversight of the criminal justice system,” DeRoche said. He said many are asking if current policies increase cost without increasing public safety.

“On a practical level, are you just spending more money on these people by incarcerating them and providing government welfare, probation services and the cost of maintaining this?” DeRoche asked. “Are we making them unemployable because of their conviction, leading to welfare and Medicaid and things as the answer?

Or are we saying to them we want to hold them accountable, and then we want you to be self-sufficient and move forward with your life.”

“It’s so easy to be in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong people,” said Marilyn Avila (R-Wake), who is the cosponsor of the bill to raise the age for misdemeanants.

“Was it just teenaged stupidity, are there issues in your home life, do you have mental issues? The juvenile justice system is much better geared to look at that and make sure the defendant gets the kind of treatment and care that helps them to straighten out,” she said.

A study done by the Youth Accountability Planning Task Force showed that raising the age in North Carolina would reduce youth recidivism by 10 percent in that population of 16- and 17-year-olds, said Brandy Bynum, head of policy for Action for Children North Carolina.

She said that study also included raising the age to be remanded to the adult court system for young people who committed felonies.

Fewer breaks for young felons

A different bill, HB 217, would make it possible for young people who commit serious felonies to be remanded to the adult court system at the request of a county district attorney. Currently, that transfer to the adult system is done at the discretion of the judge hearing the case.

Justice Image courtesy
Justice Image courtesy

“The point is this: In juvenile court, they can’t impose the punishment that murderers or rapists can get sometimes,” said bill sponsor Rep. Paul Stam (R-Apex) during a judiciary committee meeting on the bill last week. “They’re limited to what they can get before 21, and the bill before you [makes that] age 15.

These are people who commit first-degree arson, armed robbery, manslaughter. They need to go away for longer than that.”

According to Durham Chief District Court Judge Marcia Morey, judges around the state have expressed their opposition to the bill, which, she said, takes away judicial discretion.

“In the juvenile code, in the most serious cases in which you’re deciding if a juvenile should go to the adult system, we have to go through eight factors,” she said. She explained that the last factor takes into consideration the seriousness of the crime and whether the juvenile presents a danger to society. She said if those factors are in place, the juvenile court judge must order a transfer to the adult system.

“Let prosecutors do their jobs, and let the judges use the facts and the evidence to make these important decisions,” Morey said.

Rob Thompson from the Covenant with North Carolina’s Children said he’s concerned about taking away this decision from an impartial judge, and giving it to “a prosecutor who has a specific agenda and goal in the case.”

Thompson said at present, before a juvenile gets transferred to the adult court system, both prosecutors and defendants present evidence about the crime to the judge, who makes the final decision.

“It gives the power to the prosecutor with no recourse for a hearing or any evidence to be presented,” Thompson said. “If the prosecutor just writes the motion, it automatically get’s transferred into the adult system and there’s no opportunity to discuss it.”

He also pointed to higher recidivism rates for juveniles who end up in the adult system, than kids who stay in the juvenile justice system.

“The juvenile system, is much more treatment oriented. Often, the whole family receives services, the children receive mental health treatment or substance abuse treatment,” Thompson said. “Whereas, the adult system is much more punitive and not as focused on rehabilitation.”

Thompson also expressed concern about how kids in the adult system  are more likely to suffer abuse.

Morey pointed that teens transferred to the adult court system often end up in juvenile detention for more than 400 days waiting for trial, at a cost of $221 per day.

“That’s $85,00 waiting for resolution in the superior court system, and rarely do these kids go on trial,” said Morey, who explained that most of the time juveniles end up making a plea bargain.

Most of the committee debate on the bill has been between Stam and Rep. Rick Glazier (D-Fayetteville), both of whom have sat on statewide juvenile law commissions in the past.

“There’s no differentiation here,” Glazier said. “An enormous number of kids who come into juvenile court come in with mental illness, with mental retardation, and those kids are screened out. They’re screened out by prosecutors who don’t seek transfer [to adult court] or by judges who then go through the eight factors and then decide on the transfer. This takes all that screening out.”

Glazier also has pressed for the committee to get data about how often prosecutors’ requests to transfer juvenile felony defendants to adult court get denied.

“Let’s get a sense of the data from across the state,” Glazier asked during committee discussions this week. “We may end up back exactly here, maybe not. But at least we’d be operating with a full deck of information.”

Stam, on the other hand, pushed to move the bill to the next committee, where that data could be heard.

In the end, the committee voted to move the bill on to an appropriations committee.

cover image: apdk, Flickr Creative Commons

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Rose Hoban is the founder and editor of NC Health News, as well as being the state government reporter. Hoban has been a registered nurse since 1992, but transitioned to journalism after earning degrees...