Local News

NC task force: Raise juvenile age to 18 for some crimes

Posted January 14, 2011 12:04 p.m. EST
Updated January 14, 2011 8:07 p.m. EST

— A task force of attorneys, judges, law enforcement officials and school administrators say North Carolina should raise the age in which a person can be criminally charged as an adult from 16 to 18.

The bipartisan Youth Accountability Task Force released a draft of the recommendations of its two-year study to the General Assembly on Friday.

The suggestion is to raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction only for misdemeanors and low-level nonviolent felony offenses. It would not apply in cases where a person is accused of violent crimes.

“North Carolina is doing a mediocre job with 16- and 17-year-olds, because we have them in a system that’s inappropriate for their needs and inappropriate for their actions,” said task force Chairwoman state Rep. Alice Bordson, D-Alamance. “We need to change how we deal with these young people.”

Members of the task force said they believe it could help decrease the recidivism rate by as much as 10 percent among 16- and 17-year-olds.

"If you've got some young person who's living in the dark, you're not going to scare them out of the dark" by punishing them like an adult, said Mark Galloway, the chief district court judge for Person and Caswell counties who worked with the task force. "Leading them into the light is going to take a little more effort."

Supporters said changing the law passed in 1919 wouldn't take away prosecutors' ability to try teenagers as adults in the gravest cases. State law allows someone as young as 13 to be tried as an adult on a felony charge, if a judge agrees. Traffic offenses committed by persons 16 and older would continue to be judged in adult criminal courts.

Judging the 16- and 17-year-olds accused of misdemeanors and low-level, nonviolent felonies — about 30,000 teens each year — in juvenile courts would cost taxpayers about $50 million a year, the panel said. The costs would come from higher law enforcement, court, and detention costs, the report said.

But that would be balanced if law-abiding adults weren't held back in job prospects by a stupid mistake they made in their teens, the report said. The higher salaries for people who finished high school and weren't burdened by a criminal record would mean an additional $98 million a year in earnings.

Keeping more 16- and 17-year-olds out of prison also would keep them from being hardened by the experience, making it less likely they will commit more crimes and helping to protect potential victims, supporters said.

"Where do we have the best recruitment for gangs in North Carolina? In prison," Galloway said.

The state could get most of the cited benefits of raising the juvenile court age without the costs if legislators allowed isolated, nonviolent criminal charges to be expunged from an older teen's record, Caldwell said.

Still, with a projected $3.7 billion budget shortfall, members say it is highly unlikely that the General Assembly will commit funds for the change.

What they are looking for, instead, is a commitment to move in the direction, adding that it can be accomplished incrementally over several years.

North Carolina and New York are the only two states in the country that automatically considers offenders age 16 as adults. Ten other states have set the juvenile age at 17, and 38 have it at 18.

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

But Eddie Caldwell, executive vice president of the North Carolina Sheriffs Association, and Fayetteville Police Chief Tom Bergamine said the Legislature's first priority ought to be increasing spending on the underfunded juvenile court system.

"It all leads back to money," Bergamine said.