Raleigh, N.C. — The push to stop prosecuting 16- and 17-year-olds as adults in North Carolina got a major boost Monday when Chief Justice Mark Martin and other law enforcement and education officials called for the change.
North Carolina is the only state that automatically puts teens younger than 18 into the adult justice system. New York legislators recently agreed to a two-year phase out of the practice in that state, and Texas last week raised its age of juvenile jurisdiction from 17 to 18.
"Regrettably, we've simply become an outlier," Martin said at a news conference, noting that he wouldn't mind North Carolina standing alone if there were "compelling reasons" to support it.
The state already has "unequal justice," he said, because 11 counties, including Wake and Durham, offer young non-violent offenders a pretrial diversion program that keeps them in the juvenile system, while the other 89 counties don't.
Surveys also show that most North Carolina parents support raising the age and that more than 90 percent of people statewide already believe only people 18 and older are handled in adult court, he said.
"All of the data, all of the professionals we trust each and every day to keep us safe, they are uniform in their recommendation that we need to take this step," Martin said.
The move was among the top recommendations of a 65-member commission Martin appointed two years ago to suggest ways to improve the state's court system.
Retired U.S. Magistrate Judge William Webb, who helped lead the blue-ribbon commission, said that only 3 percent of the crimes committed by 16- and 17-year-olds in 2014, the most recent year for which statistics are available, were violent felonies that wouldn't be handled in juvenile court. Moving the other 97 percent out of the adult system would help cut state prison costs, while improving the chances of rehabilitation and reducing recidivism, he said.
"This is a law and order measure," Webb said.
Former Lt. Gov. Jim Gardner also noted it's a compassionate measure so that people who made a mistake as a teenager aren't saddled with a criminal record for the rest of their lives, which could cause them from being denied housing or a job.
"I know that young people – mine, yours, all across this state – will make bad choices, unfortunately," said Gardner, a grandfather to nine. "Because they make a simple mistake, [that] should not be with them for the rest of their life."
Previous attempts to raise the age have fizzled in the General Assembly, but one House bill and three Senate bills are pending to accomplish it this session.
Various law enforcement groups and officials are on board with the effort this time around, including Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison, who said he backs the proposal to keep many teens from becoming career criminals.
"It's going to take money for more juvenile counselors" and detention facilities, Harrison said. "But this is something we can pull off."