By Taylor Knopf

State lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are confident that this will be the year North Carolina finally passes “Raise the Age” legislation. Rep. Chuck McGrady, a Henderson County Republican, introduced House Bill 280 on Wednesday to raise the age at which a person is automatically treated as an adult in the state criminal justice system to 18.

North Carolina is one of only two states that tries 16 and 17 year-olds as adults; the other is New York. Lawmakers in the General Assembly have tried in vain for decades to change the law that often prevents teens with misdemeanor records from getting into college, qualifying for grants and loans if they do go to college, or joining the military.

In recent years, “Raise the Age” legislation has passed the North Carolina House only to die in the Senate, partly due to the lack of support from law enforcement groups. But this year, old opponents such as the state’s police chiefs and sheriffs got behind the bill.

“Previous legislation that has been vigorously opposed by the Association merely deleted the number 16 and replaced it with the number 18,” Sheriff Graham Atkinson, president of NC Sheriffs’ Association, wrote in a letter of support.

He continued that previous legislation did not have an adequate implementation or funding plan. An unfunded or partially funded mandate to raise the age would be “detrimental to the court system and community safety.”

Anticipated financial savings

One change in this year’s bill tweaks the language from previous years and does not include 16 and 17 year olds who commit violent felonies under the legislation.

Most 16 and 17 year olds are not committing violent crimes, said Judge Marion Warren, director of N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts, during a Wednesday press conference. About 96 percent of youth offenses are misdemeanors.

Keeping 16 and 17 year olds out of adult corrections could also save the state $7 to $15 million a year, according to William Lassiter, deputy commissioner of Juvenile Justice in the Division of Adult Correction and Juvenile Justice.

Over time, he argued, fewer kids will return to the prison system as adults and require probation or other forms of supervision. He claimed keeping kids out of adult prisons reduces recidivism by about 8 percent.

On the other hand, he said, more juvenile offenders will likely become productive, tax paying members of society.

Vera Institute of Justice did a cost-benefit analysis and determined that raising the age for alleged misdemeanants and low-level felons in North Carolina could generate $52.3 million in net benefits.

Lassiter said there has already been a 30 percent reduction in juvenile crime in North Carolina over the last six years, which he considers remarkable.

Conservative support

Bill sponsor McGrady said during a press conference at the legislative building Wednesday that, “other than it being the right thing to do, it’s fiscally the right thing to do.”

McGrady said there will be initial investment costs with this new policy that are still being worked out, for items such as construction for juvenile-specific facilities. The total cost will be “several hundred million over a three to five year period,” he said.

Gov. Roy Cooper said in a statement Wednesday that his state budget includes money for initial investments.

“Raising the age can actually save North Carolina money in the long run if juvenile justice needs are adequately funded, and it makes communities safer by giving young people an opportunity to turn away from a life of crime,” Cooper said. “I believe we can find common ground across political lines to raise the age and make progress for North Carolina.”

HB 280 also has large support from conservative groups, which in the past haven’t been as vocal about “Raise the Age” legislation.

North Carolina Chief Justice Mark Martin has become more outspoken in his support to raise the age in the last year. He called North Carolina’s current law an “archaic practice” at the 2016 annual legislative mental health breakfast, shortly after his then-17-year-old son was arrested for marijuana possession.

Tarrah Callahan, executive director of Conservatives for Criminal Justice Reform said N.C. Chief Justice Mark Martin’s support and the thorough vetting of the bill brought many groups on board, specifically law enforcement.

Organizations like Methodist Home for Children have been outspoken about supporting the measure.

“[…] The majority of our juvenile complaints – 44 percent – are from schools for disorderly conduct, a k a acting out in class. Here in North Carolina, if you’ve had your 16th birthday and you act out in class, you can be prosecuted as an adult,” according to a press release on the Methodist Home’s website.

The release says youth in adult facilities are also disproportionately at risk and “more likely to be victims of rape or assault and to commit suicide.”

“Now is the time,” Judge Warren said, “North Carolina must not be last.”

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Taylor Knopf writes about mental health, including addiction and harm reduction. She lives in Raleigh and previously wrote for The News & Observer. Knopf has a bachelor's degree in sociology with a...