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N.C. task force to study age limit for juvenile offenders

A newly-developed task force will meet Wednesday morning to discuss a North Carolina law that views 16 and 17 year olds as adults.

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RALEIGH, N.C. — North Carolina residents have to be 21 to drink alcohol and 18 to vote and to have full driving privileges, but the state is one of the few where 16 and 17 year olds are considered adults in the eyes of the law.

Some child advocacy groups are lobbying state lawmakers to consider increasing the age in which a person can be criminally charged as an adult to 18 years old.

On Wednesday morning, the new Youth Accountability Planning Task Force will sit down at the Juvenile Justice Department to start talking about what would work.

The task force includes court counselors, judges, Fayetteville's chief of police and the state superintendent of schools.

Sorien Schmidt, senior vice president of Action for Children, says juveniles, whom she considers to be under 18, need special resources they are not likely to get in the adult court system.

"What we know is that putting juveniles in the juvenile justice system gets better results, because the system is geared toward kids with developing brains who are learning how to control their emotions and learning how to work in society," Schmidt said.

Action for Children proposes that cases with suspects under age 18 be under the jurisdiction of the juvenile system by default unless a suspect is charged with first-degree murder. A juvenile judge could choose to transfer a case to the adult system.

Schmidt would prefer to see parents held accountable for their children's actions – something she says doesn’t happen if they are under the jurisdiction of the adult court system.

In the juvenile system, she said, "Not only are they under the court's jurisdiction, but their caretaker or parents are under that system too and have to show up, get subpoenaed."

Those opposed to changing the age say violent criminals are getting younger and that the juvenile system is already overwhelmed and underfunded.

Last year, more than 22,000 juveniles – defined by law as someone 15 or younger – went through the state court system.

"If you take the number of serious offenders who are 16 and 17 years old and dump them on a system the way it is now, it could make the juvenile justice system much worse than it already is," said Wake County Chief District Judge Robert Rader.

Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby said he is opposed to changing the law.

"We look at the trends of younger and younger offenders committing violent sexual offenses, armed robberies, homicides, and then we're going to talk about raising the juvenile age and making it more difficult to protect the public? I think that concept is ridiculous," Willoughby said.

Schmidt disagrees.

"There's a lot of studies that have shown us that kids who go into juvenile systems are less likely to commit future crimes and that kids who are put into adult systems are much more likely to commit future crimes," she said. "They are also more likely to become more violent over time."

Linda Hayes, secretary of the North Carolina Department of Juvenile Justice, said she believes lawmakers need more information to make an informed decision. She said most of the crimes committed by 16 and 17-year-old offenders are not heinous enough to qualify for adult punishment.

"So, I think it's going to just be really based on what the research shows," she said.

A change, Hayes said, would require lawmakers to appropriate more money for the juvenile justice system.

Schmidt admits more resources would be needed but says lawmakers have to look at the long-term outlook.

"(The system) is absolutely underfunded, but for the long-term well-being of the state, in terms of the economy, if you put them in juvenile and they're less likely to commit future crimes, you're going to have to build fewer prisons," she said. "And we have a problem where we already have too many people in prisons now."

"We need to bite the bullet and do what is going to work and what the science tells us works," she added.

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