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Proposals Would Send Fewer Teens to Adult Court

State lawmakers are considering raising the age at which teens can be tried as adults for crimes, but at least one prosecutor warned against such a move.

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RALEIGH, N.C. — State lawmakers are considering raising the age at which teens can be tried as adults for crimes, but at least one prosecutor warned against such a move.

Companion bills in the House and Senate would channel everyone through the juvenile justice system until they turn 18. Sixteen- and 17-year-olds are tried as adults under current state law, which has been in effect since 1919.

Some North Carolina lawmakers and child welfare advocates call the state law unfair, saying teens need the support offered through the juvenile system to turn their lives around. 

"The goal is to make sure any young person who steps wrong, who starts going down that criminal path, will be dealt with in the channel where they are best served and the public will be best served," said state Rep. Alice Bordsen, D-Alamance. "Some of them may need to stay in the adult system."

More than 450 offenders younger than 18 were admitted to state Department of Correction prisons last year. That number included 361 17-year-olds, 82 16-year-olds and eight 15-year-olds.

Supporters of the bills said teens who end up in the adult system are more likely to commit more crimes after being released. Having an adult record also often bars teens from schools and jobs, they said.

"Those who go to prison, when they come out, are more likely to repeat sooner and for more serious crimes," said Senior Administrative Law Judge Fred Morrison, a member of the state Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission.

"If they commit a low-level felony, no matter what they do, they have a lifetime scar. No matter what they do, they will drag this felony conviction around with them forever," Bordsen said.

The Campaign for Youth Justice studied juvenile justice in seven states, including North Carolina, and found that placing teen offenders in adult courts and jails increases the odds they will become repeat offenders.

"The investment of public money will get the greatest returns by strengthening the juvenile system rather than putting these teens into the adult system," said Sorien Schmidt, senior vice president of Action for Children North Carolina.

New York and Connecticut are the only other states that routinely try 16- and 17-year-olds as adults.

The proposed legislation would give judges the authority to send a teen younger than 18 to adult court for more serious offenses, such as murder.

But Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby said the legislation still goes too far.

"We're talking about dumping tens of thousands of more kids into the juvenile system immediately, and quite frankly, I don't think (the system is) equipped to handle it," Willoughby said.

"I think we should look at a way to take young offenders with non-violent crimes and, after the appropriate period of time, make their records clean," he said. "But I think a wholesale shift of this is a very dangerous thing for us to do."


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