RALEIGH — A local lawmaker is among those in the General Assembly who are attempting to take school-aged teens out of the adult court system and invest in juvenile justice.
At a press conference Wednesday, state lawmakers and representatives from law enforcement and the judiciary gathered to announce House Bill 280 — the “Juvenile Justice Reinvestment Act” — which would classify 16- and 17-year-old criminal offenders as juveniles.
North Carolina and New York are the only states in which 16- and 17-year-olds are considered adults within the legal system. There have been bipartisan efforts to raise the age of legal adulthood to 18, but they have stalled because of objections of law enforcement leaders and prosecutors. The latest push has the backing of many law enforcement and judicial organizations, such as the North Carolina Sheriff’s Association, the Association of Police Chiefs and the Police Benevolent Fund.
House Bill 280, which would take effect in December 2019, says 16- and 17-year-olds with misdemeanors and lower-grade felonies must be tried in juvenile court. These cases comprise nearly 97 percent of the 5,700 convictions among offenders in that age range in 2014, according to information provided at the news conference. However, the bill gives the district attorney, judges and all parties involved the latitude to ask that a nonviolent case be transferred to the adult system if circumstances warrant..
“There was a point made today I had never thought of before. It now allows the parents to have more buy in than before. It used to be that everything was in the judge’s hands, but now the parents, guardians and grandparents are part of what is happening,” said Rep. Garland Pierce, one of the bill’s sponsors, who represents part of Robeson County. “Half of referrals to the juvenile system are for school-based offenses.
“What was detention is now going to an adult court,” he said.
Pierce said conversations with local judicial officials, including Robeson County District Attorney Johnson Britt, have helped shape his support for the legislation.
A major hurdle for the bill is the financial investment it calls for in the juvenile justice system.
“Law enforcement, the courts and experts on juveniles agree that raising the age makes sense for North Carolina, and that’s why my budget includes initial investments to make this happen.” Gov. Roy Cooper said in a statement supporting the bill. “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. I believe we can find common ground across political lines to raise the age and make progress for North Carolina.”
Recidivism rates among teens tried in the juvenile court system are 7.5 percent lower than in the adult system, said William Lassiter, a deputy commissioner for juvenile justice in the Department of Public Safety.
“A youth in an adult prison is more likely to be victimized and have to join a gang for protection,” Pierce said. “The investment is well worth it down the road. We want to get productive adults down the road.”
A teen’s record in juvenile court is confidential, not public. Teens with criminal records in adult court find it difficult to enter the armed forces or obtain financial aid to attend college. A conviction is also an obstacle to employment.
A Senate version of the bill was scheduled to be rolled out Wednesday. However, that was postponed as it is tweaked, according to Sen. Danny Britt, a freshman legislator who represents Robeson and Columbus counties. Britt, an attorney, has indicated support for raising the age.
Past efforts at similar legislation, such as in 2013, have been passed by the House then not taken up by the Senate.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.
Reach Mike Gellatly at 910-816-1989 or via Twitter @MikeGellatly