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By Taylor Knopf

North Carolina is now the only state in the U.S. that automatically tries 16 and 17 year-olds as adults.

Powerful House lawmakers introduced “Raise the Age” legislation to change that fact during the first week of March, but House Bill 280 has been stuck on a committee to-do list ever since.

On Monday, North Carolina Chief Justice Mark Martin called a press conference at the legislative building to put some momentum behind this issue again. New York was the second-to-last state that automatically treated 16 and 17 year-olds like adults, but it passed a “Raise the Age” bill in April.

“I hate to be the bearer of bad news but North Carolina now stands alone,” Martin said, arguing that what’s being proposed is a “very modest revision of our law.”

“It is simply that when our teenagers are accused of nonviolent offenses that they are not automatically tried in adult court.”

There are already juvenile diversion programs in 11 of North Carolina’s 100 counties, according to Martin. So some 16- and 17-year-olds in the state have already been directed toward rehabilitation programs instead of being charged and tried in court.

Martin called it “unequal justice” to have teens in some counties go through diversion programs and have the kids in the rest of the state’s counties treated as adults.

“That’s one of the gravest forms of injustice for any legal system,” he said.

Martin mentioned a survey conducted by the Department of Public Safety which found that 90 percent of parents North Carolina already thought that 18 was the age for adult jurisdiction in the state.

Overwhelming support

Dozens of law enforcement and court officials joined Martin at the legislature in support of this bill. The press conference room was so full with supporters that advocates, lobbyists and even judges spilled into the lobby of the legislative building on Jones street and pressed up against the glass of the room to listen.

Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison receives applause after telling dozens of people gathered at the NC General Assembly Monday that it’s time to raise the age at which 16- and 17-year-olds are charged as adults. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

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, joining the military and later, getting jobs.

The major hold-up has been opposition from law enforcement. But finally, the North Carolina’s police chiefs and sheriffs are on board.

Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison spoke in support of the bill on Monday. He said he has separate “pods” for juveniles in his jail, but not every county can do that. Harrison argued that kids end up placed with adult offenders who put the wrong ideas in their heads.

But Harrison noted that to make “Raise the Age” work, it will take more funding.

“It’s going to take money for more juvenile counselors, especially here in Wake County,” he said. “They are bogged down… I want to make sure everyone understands that.”

Former Lieutenant Governor James Carson Gardner spoke in support, saying that a simple teenage mistake should not stay with a person for the rest of their life.

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“It’s long overdue,” Gardner said. “I would say to all members of the legislature, let’s get on with it. Let’s get it done this year.”

North Carolina Judge William Webb spoke in support also, and said that putting 16- and 17-year-olds through the juvenile justice system increases the chance of rehabilitation and decreases recidivism.

A mental health issue

William Lassiter, North Carolina deputy secretary for juvenile justice, said that all but one juvenile offender in the state’s youth development centers has a mental health diagnosis. He added that 82 percent have two mental health diagnoses, and about 50 percent have four or more mental illnesses.

He called the juvenile justice system a “therapeutic environment” with a 1-to-15 ratio of psychologists and social workers throughout his facilities. Lassiter said his department has partnerships with mental health professionals across the state.

“We know that mental health is a big portion of what’s causing the behaviors that we are seeing that turn into criminal behaviors,” Lassiter said. “So we want to identify those and get to the root cause of the problem.”

Matt Gross, policy director of NC Child, said his organization supports “Raise the Age” legislation because the juvenile system “has a better track record for rehabilitation.”

“Prison is not a place for these kids,” he said. “The adult prison system is not built around rehabilitation, it’s built around punishment.”

He also pointed out that kids who offend might not fully comprehend their actions. He noted more current research showing that brain development isn’t really complete until a person is in their early 20s.

“The last two parts of the brain that develop deal with impulse control and decision-making,” Gross said. “So many of the reasons these kids end up in the adult system is this part of their brain isn’t complete yet.”

After going through the juvenile system instead, kids have better opportunity to get into college and find employment later in life, he said.

Getting 16- and 17 year-olds out of the adult system should decrease gang activity as well, Gross said.

“Prisons are a challenging place,” he said. “They actually affiliate with gangs in the adult system for their own protection.”

Tom Murry, chief legal counsel of governmental affairs for the state’s judicial branch, said that the juvenile court process is almost civil in nature and parents are brought into the process.

“You could go through the criminal adjudication process as a 17 year old and your parents never know about it,” Murry said. “There is no notice. It’s not required.”

Misdemeanors only?

Some advocates are concerned that 16 and 17 year olds who commit lower level felonies may not be included in the proposed law.

It’s not unheard of for a state to pass a “Raise the Age” law and only include misdemeanors, according to Susanna Birdsong, policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina.

She said that Illinois passed a law that only included misdemeanors, and then went back a few years later and included felonies, after the data showed the approach was successful and actually lowered the rate of juveniles who offended.

According to Murry, the fact that there is a discussion about what crimes should be included is already a “win” for North Carolina.

“Because we are having a detailed public policy conversation,” Murry said.

“Let’s keep our eye on the ball,” he added. “More than 90 percent of 16- and 17 year-old’s crimes were misdemeanors. Let’s focus on getting it funded and passed.”

 

Taylor Knopf

Taylor Knopf covers rural and mental health news. She previously wrote for The News & Observer as a politics and general assignment reporter. Before that, she worked at a small daily newspaper in southern...