• Excludes drugs and violent crimes.
By RICK CURL
Of The Record Staff
If a new state House bill cosponsored by Harnett County Republican Rep. David Lewis, juveniles who commit lesser crimes won’t have to face the adult criminal justice system.
The Juvenile Justice Reinvestment Act, HB 280, would raise the age of adult to 18. It currently sits at 16 which means juveniles at that age and older are tried in adult courts regardless of the charge.
The bill has passed its first reading on the floor of the N.C. House and will now be referred to the Judiciary Committee for consideration. If it is found to be favorable, the legislation will be forwarded to the Appropriations Committee for approval.
There are exceptions to the changes included in HB 280 — exceptions for higher classes of felonies. If approved, the bill would increase the age for low-level felonies and misdemeanors, but not for Class A through E felonies and traffic offenses. That exception has been missing from past legislation and has been a stumbling block to passage.
North Carolina and New York are the only remaining states that charge juveniles between 16 and 18 years old as adults. There are differences in the law between the two states as it stands currently. If a 16- or 17-year-old is convicted as an adult in New York, they are still given access to juvenile services while in North Carolina they are sent to the adult criminal justice system with no intervention from the juvenile system.
New York’s criminal procedure has a reverse waiver provision allowing a youthful offender to petition the court to be tried as a juvenile, North Carolina is the only state that treats all 16- and 17-yearolds as adults in the criminal justice system.
According to numbers provided by Rep. Lewis’ office, the re- See Bill, Page 3A
“The raise-the-age bill will strengthen families in our state by reforming the criminal justice system for minors in order to lower recidivism, less crime and increased safety. We must focus on developing our youth into their God-given potential, regardless of their position in life.”
— Rep. Davis Lewis, bill co-sponsor Bill
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cidivism rate, or the tendency to relapse into the same behavior, for juveniles who are adjudicated in adult courtrooms is significantly higher than those who are entered into the juvenile system.
North Carolina data shows a 7.5 percent decrease in recidivism when teens are adjudicated in the juvenile system versus the adult system. The report credits the decrease to the juvenile system focusing on age-appropriate curriculum targeting the root causes of a youth’s criminal activity and providing interventions to stem future criminal behavior.
It also cites parental involvement as another factor in the lower rate since North Carolina law requires that a parent, guardian or custodian to attend all court hearings. Parental involvement is absent in the adult criminal justice system. Parents can also be required by judges to attend parenting classes or participate in the child’s psychological treatment.
The report further claims when teens are apart of the adult system the recidivism rate is 12.6 percent higher than the overall population.
“The raise-the-age bill will strengthen families in our state by reforming the criminal justice system for minors in order to lower recidivism, less crime and increased safety,” Rep. Lewis said. “We must focus on developing our youth into their God-given potential, regardless of their position in life. I am proud to sign onto a bill that ensures that we give the most vulnerable in our society a chance at rehabilitation and a fulfilling life.”
The bill has lots of bipartisan support. Rep. Lewis was joined by fellow GOP house members Chuck McGrady (R-Henderson), Susan Martin (R-Pitt, Wilson) along with Democrat Duane Hall of Wake County as primary sponsors for the legislation.
In addition, there are 24 Democrats and 22 Republicans listed as secondary sponsors of the bill. The list includes two Minority Whips and Democratic Leader Darren G. Jackson of Wake County.
While legislators and grassroots organizations are fully in favor of the measure, some prosecutors see it as a piece of good legislation, but feel it comes with a couple of caveats.
First being the ability to adjudicate crimes in a way that is both proper under the new legislation and in the control of prosecutors.
Harnett and Lee County District Attorney Vernon Stewart says he’s in favor of the bill as long as the higher crimes are excluded and there’s room for prosecutors to have some discretion.
“As long as prosecutors can maintain jurisdiction on higher offenses,” he said “I don’t have an objection to the age increase.”
He stressed the need to keep the higher felonies, such as murder, rape, aggravated battery with a weapon and the like, in the jurisdiction of the District Attorney’s office is crucial.
“I wouldn’t be opposed to it,” he said. “And I think it’s probably going to happen.”
Former Secretary of the North Carolina Department of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency, Linda Wheeler Hayes, believes it’s about time for the legislation.
“This is something we’ve been working on in North Carolina for the last 25 years,” Mrs. Hayes said. “This is a good bill and it’s the right thing to do.”
Johnston County District Attorney Susan Doyle agrees with Mr. Stewart and adds another factor.
“The Conference of District Attorneys supports this change in juvenile age if, and only if, it is properly funded,” she said. “District Attorneys’ offices as well as the court system as a whole are already expected to do more with less.”
Gov. Roy Cooper addressed the issue of funding in a statement regarding the introduction of the bill. On Wednesday the governor pledged to include needed funds in the upcoming budget.
“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,” the governor said in the statement. “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 the 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.”
Ms. Doyle cites other areas beyond the state’s checkbook. She said if the new legislation becomes law, it will add to the burden already born by prosecutors in what is already an overcrowded juvenile system.
Juvenile Justice System As It Is Now Can’t Handle It “Raising the juvenile age would dump tens of thousands of cases into an already overburdened juvenile court system,” Ms. Doyle said. “Sixteen- and 17-year-olds charged with misdemeanor offenses are currently prosecuted in adult District Court. The average time it takes to dispose of one misdemeanor plea in District Court is less than three minutes. The average time it takes to dispose of a case in juvenile court is 58 minutes.”
With the additional projected time comes an even greater burden on state budget coffers — and one not expanded upon in the governor’s statement. “The Conference of District Attorneys has used our workload formula to determine that we would need an additional 103 assistant District Attorneys statewide to handle the influx of cases coming into juvenile court as a result of this change,” Ms. Doyle said. “We also will not support HB 280 unless it includes bind-over discretion for the District Attorney to transfer serious felony cases committed by juveniles to adult Superior Court to be prosecuted as an adult.”
Mrs. Hayes agrees the budgetary issues are not unfounded, but points out in the past the system has always been operated on a shoestring. Now, she hopes the governor’s pledge for additional funding to get the ball rolling will ease the fears of prosecutors.
“In the past the juvenile system has been stretching its funds,” she said. “The system has never been fully funded since previous cuts were enacted. And most of those came under previous Democratic administrations, so it’s not been the Republicans who have cut it. But, this is a bipartisan bill and I think we will see the funding needed.”
Stop The Cycle
Mrs. Hayes stresses the focus of the bill is really about helping juvenile offenders avoid getting caught up in the vicious cycle of the adult criminal justice system. She sees the focus being on how to offer an option for juvenile offenders to turn things in the right direction.
“This will help young people make better choices,” she said. “It’s designed to help them get their lives in a better shape. It’s designed to give them the opportunity to change their course and prevent them from becoming a part of the adult criminal justice system.”