House leaders try again to 'raise the age'

State lawmakers are trying again to raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction in North Carolina, and they're hopeful this might the year the proposal makes it to the governor's desk.

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Laura Leslie
RALEIGH, N.C. — State lawmakers are trying again to raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction in North Carolina – and they’re hopeful this might the year the proposal makes it to the governor’s desk.

North Carolina and New York are the only two states in which 16- and 17-year-olds are considered adults within the legal system. Advocates in both parties have tried for years to get the age of legal adulthood raised to 18. However, the proposals have always fizzled out, often due to concerns of law enforcement leaders and prosecutors.

Sponsor Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson, said Wednesday that that’s been resolved in this year’s attempt, which he’s titling the "Juvenile Justice Reinvestment Act," echoing a 2013 reform of the adult justice system that has resulted in lower prison rates, lower recidivism and lower state costs.

House Bill 280 would classify 16- and 17-years olds as legal adults only if they’re charged with a violent felony, although it would also give law enforcement, judges and all other parties involved the power to ask that a nonviolent case be transferred to the adult system if circumstances warrant it.

The measure has support from a laundry list of groups, including attorneys, judges, law enforcement, prosecutors, the business community, child advocates and a host of lawmakers in both parties and both chambers.

"One of the most difficult parts of the job of being a lawyer, an advocate, a judge, a prosecutor, is when you have someone that commits an offense that you see is from the sheer folly of youth and the lack of maturity, and that offense carries with them the rest of their lives," Administrative Office of the Courts director Marion Warren, a longtime district court judge who’s supporting the change, said during a news conference. "We’re one of only two states in which that happens these days."

According to sponsor Rep. Duane Hall, D-Wake, the vast majority of convictions for 16- and 17-year olds are for minor infractions. In 2014, the last year for which statistics are available, only 3.3 percent of convictions of 16- and 17-year-olds in North Carolina were for violent felonies.

But even a nonviolent felony on a teen’s adult record can close a lot of doors the teen doesn’t even realize, Hall said.

"I’ve literally had teenagers in my office in tears because they weren’t going to be able to go into the same military role as their father," he said. "I’ve had dozens of kids in my office that were faced with not being able to get financial aid or even working on campus to pay their own way through (college)."

According to state Juvenile Justice director William Lassiter, juvenile crime has fallen by 30 percent over the past decade, and recidivism has been cut nearly in half for children under 16. He’s hopeful that moving 16- and 17-year olds into the juvenile system can yield similar improvement.

The legislation would also include a new process for diversion of 16- and 17-year-olds, similar to that already in place for younger offenders, that involves parents and community support in ways the current system does not.

"This diversion program will put in place a mechanism where parents and families are empowered to do things together with the courts, instead of being at odds with the courts, and causing a parent to choose between defending your child in incarceration and putting your child back on the right path," Warren said.

The proposal would cost hundreds of millions of dollars in the short term, McGrady acknowledged, to build additional juvenile facilities and make other changes in the justice system. But he believes it’s the right thing to do, and over time, he says it will save the state millions of dollars in reduced recidivism and improved economic productivity.

The House has passed similar measures in past sessions. The Senate has not taken them up.