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By Taylor Knopf

Kids accompanied by their parents trickled into the quaint Orange County courtroom lined with murals last week. One by one, the juvenile offenders met with the district attorney to negotiate punishments for their crimes.

Judge Joseph Buckner has been working with juvenile offenders for several decades and said he would like to see 16 and 17 year olds tried in juvenile court. Photo credit: Taylor Knopf

Chief District Court Judge Joseph Buckner entered the courtroom in his black robe and all rose to their feet. The first teen approached the bench with his mom. He was there for attempted misdemeanor larceny.

Another girl came forward with her dad by her side. She received an additional 24 hours of community service for a probation violation.

Everyone is amicable. The kids are told to interrupt if they have questions. The morning has the structural feel of a typical court session, except for when the judge turns to get the opinion or approval of a group to his right.

Sitting in the jury box is a social worker, a court counselor, a conflict resolution coordinator, a mediator and other service providers that are there help the juvenile offender.

Buckner said he depends on these experts and their reports on each offender.

“A lot of times it’s the first time I’ve ever seen the kid,” he said. “The court counselor has usually spent hours with them.”

Competing visions

House Bill 280 passed a House judiciary committee  unanimously Tuesday, after an hourlong discussion that included Chief District Court Judge Julius Corpening  (Dist. 5, Pender County) calling his speech in support of raising the age, “the most important three minutes of my career.”

The House bill includes moving teens accused of all misdemeanors, as well as some lower level felonies, into juvenile court, with full implementation by 2019.

The Senate budget bill presented on Tuesday evening, however, only allows for accused juvenile misdemeanants to be tried in juvenile court. Any 16 or 17 year old accused of a felony would automatically be tried in adult court.

North Carolina House Rep. Chuck McGrady, at podium, discusses his “Raise the Age” legislation at the state House Judiciary I Committee on Wednesday, May 10, 2017, in Raleigh North Carolina. The bill would raise the criminal age of majority to 18 from 16 for misdemeanors and lower-level felonies. Photo credit: Paul Woolverton
Right now, this is the court experience for many of North Carolina juvenile offenders under the age of 16, but once a teen is older, they’re sent immediately to adult court.

But, if state lawmakers pass “Raise the Age” legislation, 16 and 17 year olds could also be included in this program instead of going through adult court. North Carolina is the only state that automatically tries older teens as adults.

A bill to change this law passed unanimously through the House Judiciary 1 committee on Wednesday, and the Senate budget released Tuesday night includes “Raise the Age” provisions.

Therapeutic, holistic court

Valoree Hanson, a restorative justice coordinator at the Carrboro Dispute Settlement Center, is one of those people sitting in the jury box. She comes to observe the court session to see if her center’s services might be useful to someone.

“Restorative justice is a holistic way of approaching kids who make bad choices,” she said. “It gives kids who have done something to bring them here a chance to face the person they harmed, and also make it right. And that’s what we all need when we make a mistake. We want the chance to make it right.”

While she and the other service providers are quiet for most of the court hearing, they do the heavy lifting behind the scenes.

There are many interviews that lead up to the court date. Additionally, Hanson said that therapists, restorative justice practitioners and community service workers meet once a month, look at the kids on the docket and decide how to best help them.

“We come up with a plan before they ever get to the judge,” she said.

Hanson said that the judges in Orange County rely on and respect the opinions of the practitioners.

“They know that when they get that report (on each offender) that there has been a lot of effort, thought and time put into it,” she said.

Sometimes a judge will order the teen to programs such as family counseling, community service or conflict resolution therapy. Once the court orders it, referrals go out to service providers who then make contact with the youth and their family.

Robin Shores, a senior studying peace and conflict studies and criminal justice at Guilford College, has been observing the Orange County juvenile court the past four months for school credit. He said he’s shocked by the therapeutic nature.

“The network setup to support the community from a court-ordered level is amazing,” he said.

“I’ve seen the judge ask the child, ‘Do you think this will be helpful to you?’” Shores said. “You’ll never ever see that in adult court.”

“Do you want money, a job, a car, a girlfriend?”

Judge Buckner, Hanson and Shores all agree that this level of integrated court should be applied to all kids, not just those under the age of 16.

“We make poor choices throughout our life,” Hanson said, “but we make a lot more of them when we are teenagers. It’s part of growing up.”

Hand painted murals adorn the walls of the Orange County Courthouse in Hillsborough where juvenile court is held several times each month. Photo credit: Taylot Knopf

Buckner said in his court room, he tries to motivate a teen to think about the future.

“It’s hard for a 14 year old to see age 16, much less 26 or 36,” he said. “So I’ll ask, ‘Do you want to have some money in your pocket? Do you want to have a job? Do you want to own a car? Do you want to have a pretty girlfriend?”

“I take them through that whole piece,” he added “What is it that they want. And let’s figure out how to get there.”

Buckner said his district holds juvenile delinquency court twice a month in Orange County and once a month in Chatham County. His area is considered a medium-size district, in comparison to Wake County which is in the “extra large” category.

“I just can’t imagine it will be that difficult,” he said about adding 16 and 17 year olds to juvenile court.

He said it shouldn’t be much work for the judges, district attorneys or public defenders. Buckner thinks the additional resources will need to go to the court counselors, who he says do most of the work.

Including felonies

Some state lawmakers have hesitated to include certain felonies in the “Raise the Age” bill. Right now, the Senate bill draws a clear line between misdemeanors and felonies. Meanwhile, the House bill includes some felonies, but not class A through E.

The fear of some lawmakers is that a 17-year-old will commit a serious or violent felony and be treated like a kid. During a meeting of the House Judiciary 1 committee on Wednesday Rep. Sarah Stevens (R-Mt. Airy) expressed concern that some of the felonies covered in the House bill are “things that take some time and intent and planning.”

“I’m concerned… are we truly prepared in our juvenile system to take in all those elements of these crimes at this point,” Stephens asked.

Buckner doesn’t see this as an issue. He said the district attorney can request that a juvenile as young as 13 be tried as an adult if the case warrants it.

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Only 3 percent of juvenile offenders commit violent felonies, said New Hanover District Attorney Ben David who addressed the House Judiciary committee Wednesday.

“And for those, I’m the first to stand before the judge and ask that those cases be transferred to superior court,” David said, “Whether they are 17 after this bill is passed or if they are 14 or 15, as I’ve had to do in my career.”

Rep. Chuck McGrady (R- Hendersonville), primary sponsor of the House Bill 280, said he doesn’t want to draw the line at all felonies because of crimes like shoplifting, which under the Senate version of the bill could put a youth into the adult system.

“Is that really a lifetime offense?” he asked.

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Taylor Knopf

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...