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Age Debate Regarding Felony Convictions Heats Up

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RALEIGH, N.C. — In North Carolina, if the crime is violent enough, you could be 16 and still be sentenced to life in prison. That's because in this state, a 16-year-old is automatically considered an adult in criminal cases. Only three states in the country go that young.

In 1997, Melanie Gray was just 16 when she pleaded guilty to helping murder a man. After serving eight years, she left prison in November as a convicted felon.    One group of citizens will spend the next year looking at cases like Gray's and will present its findings to state lawmakers.   Ann Wright heard about the meeting and showed up. She's the mother of a felon, convicted as an adult -- at the age of 13 -- of a sex crime. She came because she said her son turned his life around, but is still boxed-in by the system because of a youthful mistake.

"The basis is there are so many opportunities he's going to miss because he has the big red 'F' on his forehead," said Wright. "He's a felon, and until he dies he'll be a felon."

For Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby, that's the point. He said under the current law, the public knows about all of the violent criminals. If North Carolina bumps the adult age up to 18, then any criminal younger than that will have a secret record.

"How about the 17-year-old rapist?" asked Willoughby. "Do you want him to be an orderly in your grandmother's nursing home? Those are things we need to tell the public."

So, how many teenage offenders would be affected if the law were changed to 18?  Right now, there  are 166 16-to 17-year-olds in the prison system.

One issue that lawmakers want studied is whether the Department of Corrections is correcting the children or making career criminals out of them. While Willoughby said the system is working fairly well, he agrees there could be improvements.

He said instead of changing the age limit, lawmakers should give judges more flexibility in sentencing young offenders.


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