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By Taylor Knopf

The North Carolina House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly on Wednesday to pass a bill that would raise the age at which teens who commit crimes are tried as adults to 18 years old.

North Carolina is the last state in the nation that automatically sends 16 and 17 year olds to adult court. But that could change if House Bill 280 makes it past the state Senate.

Many lawmakers have come to support the bill, acknowledging it’s unfair for teenagers charged with a misdemeanor to carry a permanent record that can hinder them from getting into college, qualifying for college grants and loans, joining the military and later, getting jobs.

Advocates have long argued that juvenile courts are a better and more therapeutic place for teens with developing brains, because juvenile courts require parental involvement and there are more counseling and rehabilitation services available to young offenders.

Those advocates have pushed in vain for years to pass “Raise the Age” legislation only to be opposed by groups such as law enforcement.

This is not the first time a bill to raise the age has passed the North Carolina House. In 2014, a bill passed the House 77 to 39, but died in the Senate. The bill that passed Wednesday did so by a 104 to 8 margin.

The difference is that this year the Senate included a mechanism for raising the age in its budget which was released earlier this month.

Lengthy floor discussion

The House visitor gallery was packed as some guests stood along the wall on Wednesday as primary bill sponsor Rep. Chuck McGrady (R- Hendersonville) took the floor to present the “Raise the Age” plan.

“What’s significant here is that this bill is supported by a broad coalition of groups, including some that have opposed the legislation in the past,” he said.

“You don’t often see the ACLU and the John Locke Foundation joined,” McGrady added.

He urged his colleagues to vote for the bill to make the state safer, noting that juvenile crime rates dropped when other states raised the age.

He stressed that under this bill, nothing will change for juveniles who commit violent crimes. This has been a major point of contention throughout the committee vetting process. Some lawmakers fear that juveniles will not be held truly accountable for serious crimes if “Raise the Age” becomes law.

The House bill excludes more serious class A through E felonies, such as armed robbery or sexual assault. Additionally, a district attorney can petition a judge to try any case in adult court, even if the defendant is as young as 13. However, the Senate companion bill only raises the age for juvenile misdemeanor offenses, things such as disorderly conduct, possession of marijuana or resisting a police officer.

McGrady added that the state can afford to pass this bill. Some have calculated a $25 million cost to construct a new juvenile detention facility. Meanwhile, Department of Public Safety officials have told some lawmakers that existing spaces could be modified. The actual cost is yet to be determined.

Advocates and lobbyists in the House gallery snap photos of the board displaying the vote on the bill to Raise the Age at which teens are charged as adults when they commit crimes. Photo credit: Leah Asmelash

“In the past, we tried to raise the age when our budget was in a pretty poor shape,” he said. “There is an investment involved here, but we have saved money in the past decade.”

McGrady said that it appears most lawmakers have gotten past the issue of changing the policy and the main question now is funding. That’s still being worked out, and the appropriation chairs are on it, he said.

“Now is the time for North Carolina to join the other states in recognizing that in all but a small range of violent crimes, 16 and 17 year olds should not be treated as adults in the criminal justice system,” McGrady said, ending his floor speech to a rare round of applause.

Rep. Larry Pittman (R-Concord) came out strongly against HB 280, only a handful of lawmakers followed his lead to vote no on the bill. Photo credit: Leah Asmelash

Rep. Larry Pittman (R-Concord) was the loudest voice of opposition.

“Some say North Carolina needs to do this because we are the last state that hasn’t. Standing alone does not mean you are wrong,” he said.

“Should we be lemmings running off a cliff to plunge into the sea just because 49 other states have done so? I say no. Let’s continue to administer justice against crime and take care of victims, not following the crowd going soft on crime, especially without a clear understanding of the fiscal impact.”

Rep. Allen McNeill (R-Asheboro), a retired law enforcement officer, has vocally opposed “Raise the Age” legislation in the past, but Wednesday gave his support on some conditions.

“I still have concerns about the bill and how it handles low-level felonies,” he said. “As we move forward with this bill, please let’s not forget about the victims.

“I hope the bill gets better,” McNeill added. “If some of the issues are not addressed, I reserve the right to withdraw my support at a later date. But right now this is such an important issue, this bill deserves the right to go forward and continue to be debated and worked out.”

Rep. William Brawley (R-Matthews), House finance committee chair, said North Carolina would need 74 more district attorneys across the state to handle the additional workload of 16 and 17 year olds in juvenile court.

The senate budget includes funding for an additional 37 district attorneys, he said. Brawley explained that implementing this bill the first year will take capital costs, and there will be additional operational costs in later years. However, he fully supports the bill.

“Let us accept the fact that this is the first bill of many to address the issue,” Brawley said. “As we have done in the past, we will throw our hats over the wall and then go after them.”

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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...