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After almost a decade of filing similar bills, a proposal to raise the age at which 16- and 17-year-olds get charged as adults passed one chamber of the N.C. General Assembly.

By Hyun Namkoong

Sixteen- and 17-year-olds are one step closer to being charged as juveniles when they commit a misdemeanor.

After a long debate in the House of Representatives, a bill that allows 16- and 17-year-olds charged with misdemeanors to be diverted to juvenile courts rather than adult courts made it through a legislative chamber – after having been introduced multiple times over the past decade – passing 77-39 in a show of bipartisan support.

Raise the Age supporters watch proceedings in the Senate Chamber at the General Assembly last year. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

North Carolina and New York are the only states in the country that automatically try 16- and 17-year-olds as adults in the criminal justice system.

“This is an amazing moment in North Carolina history,” said Brandy Bynum, a lobbyist for NC Child who has been working on raising the age for juvenile jurisdiction for the past eight years.

Rep. Marilyn Avila (R-Raleigh) shepherded the bill through its first and second readings last year and the proposal was scheduled to be heard on the last day of last year’s long session. Usually, if a bill doesn’t pass one chamber at the end of a session it dies, but parliamentary proceedings allowed for the bill to be heard for the third and final reading in the House when the legislature reconvened this year.

“Since 2007, our state has commissioned five studies regarding raising the age of jurisdiction of 16- and 17-year-olds in North Carolina,” Avila said. “And all of those recommended that North Carolina raise the age.”

Nonetheless, debate on the floor lasted for 90 minutes, during which legislators raised concerns about gang membership, implementation of the bill and costs.

Rep. Allen McNeill (R-Asheboro) suggested that kids involved in gang violence needed to be treated as adults.

Rep. Rick Glazier (D-Fayetteville) proposed an amendment that would tie a juvenile’s crimes to his or her gang affiliation only if the crime committed was related to gang activities, satisfying McNeill and others who shared his concerns.

“I am very grateful for the bipartisan coalition that has come together on this monumental piece of legislation,” Bynum said.

Kids do dumb things

Advocates for raising the age of juvenile jurisdiction to 18 argue that adolescents lack maturity, are highly susceptible to peer pressure and are still in the process of character development.

Lawmakers who spoke in favor of the bill drew upon their own personal or family experiences of adolescent impulsiveness.

Rep. Ruth Samuelson (R-Charlotte) shared a story of how her then-16-year-old son and his friends were charged for playing a practical joke launching water balloons at an office building.

“The memory of spending that evening in jail, arrested for launching water balloons full of ranch dressing at an office building, because he was a stupid 16-year-old, still haunts him,” she said. “As a mom, I don’t want 16- and 17-year-olds treated that way for minor offenses.”

Rep. Bob Steinburg (R-Edenton) also argued in favor of the bill and urged House members to reflect back to their teenage years before voting.

“Most of the guys [here], I think we may have done one thing or another that we got a pass on,” he said. “And there are others we grew up with who did not, and they paid the price.

“I want you to take a quick look backwards at your own life. Think about what might have happened to you had someone not given you a second chance.”

Economic implications

Advocates and lawmakers in favor of the bill also argue that juveniles in North Carolina are unfairly subjected to the negative economic impact of a criminal record.

Cost-benefit analyses conducted by the Vera Institute of Justice found that raising the age of juvenile jurisdiction would lead to an annual cost of $70.9 million to taxpayers but would generate $123.1 million in recurring benefits for youth, victims and taxpayers.

“There are thousands and thousands of kids who are plagued with a record,” Bynum said.

And employers can be reluctant to hire people with a criminal record.

A study from Princeton University found that a criminal record reduces the likelihood of getting a job interview by 50 percent for white males. Black males with a criminal record have significantly less chance of getting called for an interview.

Risk for rape, recidivism and suicide

Rep. Duane Hall (D-Raleigh), a lawyer, spoke in favor of the bill, drawing upon data that shows the health risks related to incarcerated juveniles.

“The U.S. Department of Justice says that prisoners under age 18 are eight times more likely to be raped than adult inmates, he said. “[They are] 36 times more likely to [commit] suicide than youth housed in juvenile detention centers.”

Findings from the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission show that 16- and 17-year-olds placed in adult prisons have the highest risk for sexual abuse, more than any other group of incarcerated people.

Hall also argued that the risk for recidivism is 35 times higher for juvenile offenders in an adult prison.

Next hurdle, N.C. Senate

Before House Bill 725 becomes law, it must pass the state Senate. Advocates like Bynum vow to continue to work to get the bill through the other chamber of the General Assembly.

“We will continue to work with educating and engaging members on the Senate side,” she said.

Bynum recounted how she spent three months traveling the state speaking with more than 50 sheriffs to address their concerns with the bill. She expressed optimism that she can convince enough senators to vote for passage.

“I don’t think it’s sunk in yet that this bill has passed the House,” she said, beaming.

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Hyun Namkoong

Hyun graduated from the UNC-Chapel Hill Gillings Global School of Public Health in the health behavior department and she worked as the NC Health News intern from Jan-Aug 2014.