Raleigh, N.C. — A bill allowing 16- and 17-year-old misdemeanor offenders to be considered juveniles passed the state House on Wednesday evening after a lengthy debate.
Despite losing steam at the end of last session, the bill will make its way to the Senate, passing 77-39.
The legislation would create an advisory committee to calculate the cost of raising the age at which teens can be tried as adults for misdemeanors. The changes would not be implemented until 2019.
Opponents have decried the expense of processing 16- and 17-year-old misdemeanants as juveniles, while advocates say the bill would save the state money.
Rep. Duane Hall, D-Wake, cited a 2011 study by the John Locke Foundation that estimated raising the age would save North Carolina $52 million.
“This bill can save our children, but it can also save North Carolina a lot of money,” Hall said.
He also pointed to the higher risk of rape and suicide for inmates under 18 years old.
North Carolina and New York are the only states that still treat juvenile offenders as adults. Proponents of the bill argue that harsh repercussions for teen misdemeanants’ youthful misdeeds loom unfairly over their job and college applications, even when records are expunged.
Sponsor Rep. Marilyn Avila, R-Wake, said the legislation has been carefully weighed and will continue to be analyzed by the advisory committee.
“We’ll have the proven facts so we can develop a policy that will work,” Avila said.
N.C. Child, an organization that advocates for children in the state, praised the bill's passage.
“With this vote, North Carolina has gone a long way toward protecting and leveling the playing field for its young people," Brandy Bynum, spokeswoman for the organization, said in a statement. "We have strongly affirmed the importance of family and community in getting underage misdemeanants back on track."
The American Civil Liberties Union said the bill would prevent recidivism in young offenders.
"Today’s bipartisan vote is a hugely important step toward ensuring that young people in our criminal justice system are not only protected, but given a chance to correct course,” Sarah Preston, the North Carolina ACLU's policy director, said in a statement. “Young people who land in the adult criminal justice system are disproportionately at risk while in custody, more likely to return to criminal behavior than those placed in the juvenile system, and denied jobs and educational opportunities that could help them turn their lives around and contribute to society."
Rep. Paul Stam, R-Wake, said not all of the misdemeanors in the bill are minor crimes, including violent offenses such as assault. Stam pointed to similar legislation that failed more than two decades ago and said he doubted the bill could pass.
An amendment by Rep. Allen McNeill, R-Randolph, made an exception for 16- and 17-year-olds with gang ties, who would be transferred to the adult justice system if a hearing determines that they were gang members. Rep. Rick Glazier, D-Cumberland, tightened the language of the amendment, specifying that 16- and 17-year-old gang members would be processed as adults only for crimes related to their gang activities.
Avila said the need for change in teen misdemeanants' path through the justice system is clear.
“Law enforcement works on evidence,” she said. “We have given you sufficient evidence beyond a shadow of a doubt that North Carolina needs to change the age for 16- and 17-year-olds.”