North Carolina courts sentence some juveniles to life behind bars. Should that change? Some legislators think so. - North Carolina Health News
By Hannah Critchfield
In the spring of 2008, the Chapel Hill community was shaken by the murder of the University of North Carolina’s student body president.
Eve Carson, a 22-year-old white woman, was kidnapped at gunpoint on the early morning of March 5, and forced to withdraw money from several ATMs in the area.
Because she had seen their faces, the pair holding her hostage decided to kill her – they took her out into a wooded neighborhood and shot her five times. When she realized she was going to die, Carson had allegedly asked them to pray with her.
The two who killed her were sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. One of them, Laurence Alvin Lovette Jr., a Black 17-year-old, was a juvenile at the time he committed the crime.
“DA Jim Woodall that tried that case, he said the 17 year old in that case was the leader that led the 21 year old through these heinous crimes,” Chuck Spahos, a member of the NC Conference of District Attorneys, said during a meeting of the House Committee on Families, Children, and Aging Policy on April 20.
The high-profile case has reemerged in the public consciousness as North Carolina lawmakers are reaching across the aisle to push for juvenile justice reform this legislative session. Two bipartisan bills aspiring to make their way to the governor’s desk aim to change the way young people are treated within the criminal justice system.
One of the bills would eliminate life without parole for youth – like Lovette – who commit their crimes while they’re still under 18.
“Juveniles do not have fully developed brains. They can commit minor crimes, and they can commit horrific crimes,” said Rep. Marcia Morey (D-Durham), a former district court judge, said at the same meeting. “I know the case of Laurence Lovette. He was in my courtroom. And there’s much of the story of his life you have not begun to hear. These are heartbreaking cases, but taking away a juvenile’s life and sentencing them to be in a cage until they die is not going to bring the victim back.
“We’re not guaranteeing any juvenile that has committed a horrible crime will be released,” said Morey. “They have an opportunity to go to a parole hearing to show what they have done since.”
The other bill would raise the age at which a child can be held criminally responsible in juvenile court — in North Carolina, children as young as six can be declared delinquent, making it the state with lowest age threshold in the country.
Experts say the proposed bills signal a shift in how lawmakers in North Carolina are thinking about the role brain development plays in shaping a young person’s behavior and their capacity to navigate the justice system.
Beyond raising the age for adult crimes
In the wake of years of emerging research about child development, North Carolina passed the Raise the Age law in 2019, which prevented 16 and 17 year olds accused of low-level crimes from being automatically charged as adults. North Carolina was the last state in the union to make this change. Before then, youth with prior justice system involvement were unable to receive many forms of student loans, become members of the military, live in public housing, and would face barriers to applying to college because they bore the mark of an adult criminal record.
That reform didn’t change the outcome for youth convicted of felonies like Lovette’s, but the proposal, House Bill 424, filed in the House in late March, might.
In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that mandatory sentencing of life in prison without parole for juveniles was unconstitutional. A case known as Miller v. Alabama, the justices found automatic denial of parole would be disproportionate punishment for a child, in violation of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on “cruel and unusual punishments.”
Given a “child’s capacity for change,” sentencing juveniles to the harshest possible penalty should be uncommon, the majority ruled, with life without parole designated only for “the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption.”
“The Supreme Court did not outline how to make that determination, resulting in many long and expensive appeals,” said Rep. John Fairchild (R-High Point), in the April 20 hearing. The Miller ruling created a backlog of appeals for youth who were previously sentenced to automatic life without parole, with dozens still awaiting a hearing in court.
Today in North Carolina, a judge must determine if a child should receive life without the possibility of parole “as soon as is practicable” after their sentencing. A juvenile will be denied parole if a judge believes they are incapable of redemption in the future, a legal term known as “permanently incorrigible.”
HB 424, sponsored by four Republican representatives, with Faircloth as the lead sponsor, would give youth time to demonstrate change before asking an official to make that decision.
If passed, a person under 18 who is convicted of first-degree murder would have the opportunity to be considered for — but not necessarily granted — parole after serving 25 years behind bars. Youth convicted of all other crimes would be eligible for consideration after 15 serving years.
“This bill would eliminate the need for those [Miller] appeals by giving child offenders meaningful opportunities to demonstrate rehabilitation before the parole committee, thereby allowing North Carolina to save an estimated $30 million or so,” said Faircloth, a former police chief.
Twenty-six other states have passed similar legislation in response to the Supreme Court decision.
Opponents of the bill say the current system of evaluating a youth’s eligibility for parole at the time of conviction works. In arguments, they emphasize particularly egregious crimes – such as Lovette’s – committed by juveniles.
In last month’s meeting, Spahos evoked the victims of juvenile crime and their families.
“On behalf of the families of [victims of juvenile crime], how are you going to tell them now that those defendants should be eligible for parole after 25 years?” said Spahos, a prosecutor of financial crimes, at the judiciary meeting.
But those who support reform say the system currently ignores the role brain development plays in behavior and a person’s capacity to change — particularly at the expense of youth of color.
“If you look at the minors that were under the age of 18 that were sentenced to life without parole in North Carolina, it’s 92 percent of juveniles of color,” said Morey. “The racial disparity and the impact is tremendous.”
Such designations are meant to be uncommon, she said, but when they occur, the punishment is almost exclusively doled out to Black and brown youth.
Another bipartisan bill that’s moving in the Senate, SB 207, would raise the minimum age for juvenile delinquency from 6 to 10 years old. Child advocates have long argued that kids this young lack the capacity to comprehend court proceedings and make informed decisions.
Both reforms are supported by Gov. Roy Cooper’s Task Force on Racial Equity in Criminal Justice, according to its most recent recommendations.
Today, neurological research shows that young people’s brains are still developing well into their early twenties — particularly when it comes to decision-making and assessing risk in emotionally charged situations.
“They just process information differently than adults,” said Dr. Cindy Cottle, a forensic clinical psychologist who advises on juvenile criminal cases across the state. “One example is with time-perspective – they’re short term-thinkers. If it’s an uncomfortable situation, they think, ‘Okay, what is going to get me out of this situation and make this go away quickest?’ They’re not thinking of how this is going to impact them in the long-term.”
Research performed in the past two decades informed partly by advanced brain scanning technology has shown that people with fully developed brains rely heavily on their frontal lobe, which deals with logical decision-making, when determining whether to take a specific action. Adolescents and people in their early twenties, however, tend to rely more on the part of the brain called the amygdala, which deals with processing of emotions.
Notably, because the brain is still malleable — a term known as “plasticity” — people are never more receptive to change than in adolescence, Cottle said.
“By damning them to life without parole, it takes away any hope for improvement at a time, ironically, when the brain and the body are most primed to learn, primed to change,” she added.
Whether some youth are “permanently incorrigible” needs more research — existing evidence does not support the phenomenon, according to Cottle.
“There’s mental health conditions and behavioral conditions that are not even diagnosed until after a person turns 18 because, by definition, we understand as health care providers and clinicians that teenagers are still changing — they’re a moving target,” she said. “With the term ‘permanently incorrigible,’ you’ve made up your mind who they are and what they’re capable of for the next 50 years. And I just don’t know anybody that’s that skilled to do that.”
With additional evidence of racial disparity in these determinations — Cottle could not recall a single case she’d evaluated in which a white juvenile received life without parole — the psychologist said she views these bills as an attempt for law to catch up to science.
“I understand that some people do have to be held in prison or detention,” said Cottle. “But to at the same time say, ‘We’ve already decided that you’re not going to change for the rest of your life,’ is a pretty powerful statement. When you look at it from a juvenile’s perspective and you’re told that you’re incorrigible at 16, then what reason on the planet would you ever have to try not to be that?”
Even though lawmakers heard the life without parole bill during the April committee hearing, no vote was taken on the measure and its legislative fate is uncertain.
The bill to raise the age for juvenile jurisdiction passed the Senate in March and has yet to be taken up by House committees.