RALEIGH — The House overwhelmingly approved legislation Wednesday to stop North Carolina from being the only remaining state to automatically prosecute 16- and 17-year-olds as adults.
The “raise the age” bill, approved 104-8 after about an hour of House floor debate, next heads to the Senate, where a competing proposal exists. All four Robeson County representatives voted in favor of the legislation.
The measure, which has support from law enforcement groups and lawmakers in both parties, would shift the cases for those teens accused of misdemeanors and lower-grade felonies to the juvenile court system, where records are confidential. The change would take effect in 2019.
Many supporters of the legislation argued that raising the age is the right thing to do to help give teens a second chance to redeem themselves following youthful mistakes.
“The fact is that teens in all the states that surround us … if they’re convicted of a misdemeanor or a low felony, they don’t carry that for life. North Carolina 16- and 17-year-olds do,” Republican Rep. Chuck McGrady of Henderson County, one of the bill’s chief sponsors, told lawmakers.
The opposing votes came from Republicans, including Rep. Larry Pittman of Cabarrus County, who said he is concerned about the financial challenges of moving cases to juvenile court as well as what message doing so will send to victims.
“We will be telling the victims of crime that it’s no big deal just because the perpetrators are under the age of 18,” Pittman said. “Let’s continue to administer justice against crime and take care of the victims, not follow the crowd, going soft on crime, especially without a clear understanding of the fiscal impact.”
According to a document from nonpartisan General Assembly staff, the measure would initially cost the state about $25 million to build a juvenile residential facility. After taking effect, costs associated with implementing the bill would increase to roughly $41 million annually in the early 2020s.
Included in the Senate budget plan is a measure that would eliminate automatic adult court for these youth. That proposal differs from the House bill by limiting the exemption to misdemeanors only and implementing the shift a year later.