Raleigh, N.C. — A long-discussed bill that would keep some older teenagers in juvenile courts rather than being charged as adults has cleared the House Rules Committee.
Under current law, 16- and 17-year-olds who commit misdemeanors are tried in adult courts. House Bill 725 would keep them in juvenile courts starting in 2019.
Juvenile court records are closed to the public, and decisions there generally have less of an impact on future job or college prospects.
The measure was sponsored by Rep. Marilyn Avila, R-Wake, who told committee members that North Carolina was one of only two states that charge older teenagers as adults. She argued that, rather than investing in programs that expunge convictions of young offenders, North Carolina ought to keep them in courts that don't disclose their offenses to begin with. Also, she said, juvenile courts were better situated to help treat young offenders and keep them from committing crimes later.
"This is an idea whose time is come. North Carolina needs to join the mainstream of states," said Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett.
The bill is one that has frequently come before the General Assembly in recent years but has often met with suggestions that it soft on crime. Representatives of both the North Carolina Sheriffs' Association and the North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys say they oppose the bill.
In committee Wednesday, much of the focus was on cost.
"We would be dumping 9,000 16- and 17-year-olds into the juvenile system," said Phil Berger Jr., president of the district attorney's group and the son of Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger.
District attorneys would also face increased workloads because juvenile cases take longer, said another representative of the association.
Rep. Edgar Starnes, R-Caldwell, said he wanted to see an estimate of how much the measure would cost. Officials with the Department of Public Safety say the bill would cost something, but they could not say exactly what because the impact would not begin to be felt for for four years.
Lewis, a chairman of the House Finance Committee, said legislative staff could not produce a cost estimate because the bill didn't take effect for five years.
Others on the committee said the bill would actually be tougher on juvenile offenders.
"They're going to get more things that happen to them in the juvenile (court) than in the adult system," said Rep. John Blust, R-Greensboro. "This approach is after tougher on crime."
The measure would next go to the House floor. However, it's unclear whether it will pass the General Assembly this summer.
Lawmakers plan to adjourn for the year at the end of the week, giving the Senate little time to review the measure. However, it would remain eligible for consideration when lawmakers return in May 2014.