After dying in the Senate last year, House members resurrect a bill that would charge young misdemeanants as juveniles instead of as adults.

By Rose Hoban

Juvenile justice advocates are pushing North Carolina lawmakers to raise the age at which 16- and 17-year-olds are charged as adults when they commit misdemeanors. And, this year, advocates are getting some help from the governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo.

A Raise the Age supporter stands in the gallery of the NC House of Representatives in Raleigh
A young Raise the Age supporter stands in the gallery of the NC House of Representatives in 2013. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

New York is the only other state in the U.S. that routinely charges kids under 18 years old as adults when they run afoul of the law. But after a scathing U.S. Department of Justice report on conditions of juvenile offenders at New York City’s Riker’s Island prison, which include details of a “staggering” number of injuries to young offenders, Cuomo has pushed New York to change its laws.

That would leave North Carolina as the sole state to routinely charge and incarcerate young offenders under the age of 18. That’s a concern for health care advocates, who cite the Riker’s Island report, which noted that, “Adolescents are at constant risk of physical harm while incarcerated.”

“Forty-nine other states have made the decision to go in this direction on a policy issue,” said Rob Thompson, spokesman for the advocacy group NC Child, which has supported the bill. “It’s unlikely that we know something that they don’t know.”

Costs and savings

The bill would make changes to North Carolina’s penal system over four years, allowing 16- and 17-year-olds who commit misdemeanors to be prosecuted in the juvenile system. It also creates a Juvenile Justice Advisory Committee that would oversee the process. That committee would include members of law enforcement, representatives from the mental health treatment community and lawmakers.

The bill would raise the age for adult prosecution for 16-year-old offenders by 2020 and for 17-year-olds by 2021.

An almost identical bill passed the House of Representatives in 2014, but hit a wall in the Senate. Thompson said that this time the bill’s sponsors, along with advocates, are hopeful it will get through both chambers.

“We’ve got both 2015 and 2016 to get this done,” he said. “We think there’s enough bipartisan support that we should be able to move it.”

One of the biggest obstacles to the bill’s passage is the cost of implementation. Legislative fiscal analysts estimated the cost of last year’s bill at close to $80 million.

“There are questions by people smarter than me on this whether that cost is entirely accurate,” Thompson said. “Connecticut recently raised the age, and found the cost of implementation was much less than expected.”

A report prepared by the Vera Institute of Justice in 2011 for a legislative task force on the question found that implementing the change would result in a savings of $52.3 million per year, compared to an annual cost of $49.2 million.

The Vera Institute has worked with other states to improve their justice systems.

Greater risk

In addition, the report found that young offenders handled in the juvenile justice system are less likely to reoffend. Those charged as adults also have more trouble finding jobs, completing their education and staying in stable housing because of the criminal records they carry with them.

Retired New Bern Police Department Chief Frank Palumbo pointed out that when former young offenders from North Carolina apply for jobs or for college, they carry with them a permanent mark and are often excluded because they have an adult conviction on their record.

“We punish North Carolina kids twice,” Palumbo said. “They get punished for doing what they did and then we punish them again later on when their record is checked and they find misdemeanor convictions in their records. It’s just craziness.”

He argued that in a juvenile system, kids would get intervention from probation officers and counselors and parents would get pulled in. But under the current adult system, young misdemeanants often are sentenced to unsupervised probation.

“What does that mean?” Palumbo asked. “The kid goes to court, gets found guilty, gets one year unsupervised probation and out the door they go. It means nothing.”

And when young people go to prison, they face increased problems.

A report prepared by the John Locke Foundation in 2012 noted that minors incarcerated in adult facilities are at greater risk for harm “given their age, stature, and lack of maturity.” The report cited data showing minors in adult prisons were victims of one-fifth of the sexual assaults, despite being only 1 percent of the prison population.

Kids are also more likely to be victims of non-sexual violent assaults in adult facilities, and there’s evidence that young incarcerated offenders are at higher risk of suicide.

“The embarrassing part is that they’ve been working on this for, like, 20 years,” Palumbo said.

Bill sponsor Rep. Marilyn Avila (R-Raleigh) said the bill was “common sense.”

“if you’ve raised teenagers, you know how easy it is for them to get in trouble,” she said. “This is a ridiculous level of misbehavior to put a black mark on a child and put him into a system that’s not going to turn him out in good shape.”

She said she wanted to make sure she could get the bill through the House again, where it passed 77-39 last year. Then Avila said she’d start talking with members of the Senate to see if she could finally get the bill through that chamber.

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