'Raise the Age' push for teen crime changes returns

A proposal to change the way the state treats some teen criminals is back on the table in the House.

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Laura Leslie
RALEIGH, N.C. — A proposal to change the way the state treats some teen criminals is back on the table in the House.

The "Raise the Age" initiative has been circulating in various forms for more than a decade at the legislature. This year's version, very similar to a bill that passed the House last session, would rewrite state laws for minor offenses for 16- and 17-year-olds.

Under current law, 16- and 17-year olds who commit misdemeanors are tried as adults. The crimes remain on their records as adults, making it more difficult for them to get into college, obtain financial aid or get a job.

For felonies, the age is even younger. Teens as young as 13 who commit a violent felony can be tried as adults. North Carolina is one of only two states in the nation – the other is New York – that still treats such young offenders as adults.

House Bill 399, however, does not address felony charges, only misdemeanors.

Sponsor Rep. Marilyn Avila, R-Wake, said teens are prone to poor decision-making, but today's teens don't have the community structure and support that kept her generation out of trouble for the most part.

"Too many of our children today don't have that positive influence and are suffering because of it," Avila said.

She said treating those offenders in the juvenile justice system would ensure they get more support and help with other problems they might have, such as substance abuse or educational deficiencies.

Co-sponsor Rep. Duane Hall, D-Wake, pointed out that the same bill passed the House last session 77-33, but the Senate refused to hear it. Hall said the bill would cost a little more money in the short-term but would save the state money in the long run. Study after study has shown teens who go through the adult system are much more likely to re-offend than those who go through the juvenile system.

"Lots of costs reasons," Hall said, "but the main reason we're doing it is it's the right thing to do."

That sentiment was echoed by Durham County Chief District Judge Marcia Morey, who said she sees teen offenders before her bench every day who don't understand that the crime "is indelible on his life, his future, getting into college, getting a first job."

Retired New Bern police chief Frank Palombo, also a longtime supporter of the bill, said many law enforcement officers would rather keep the law the way it is because it's so much simpler and faster – and cheaper – to book a teenager as an adult than as a juvenile.

"It's easy, but easy isn't right," Palombo said. "What are we accomplishing?"

Palombo said this debate has been going on since he served on the state's Structured Sentencing Commission in 2001.

"It's time to stop talking and do this thing," he said. "It's the right thing to do."

Avila said about 80 percent of charges against 16- and 17-year-olds in North Carolina are misdemeanors. The bill also doesn't offer any help for teens already in the system.

The bill was referred Tuesday afternoon to the House Judiciary 2 committee.

The legislation will be referred to a committee Tuesday afternoon.

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