N.C. may treat fewer teen offenders as adults, The Virginian-Pilot

February 2011

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N.C. may treat fewer teen offenders as adults, The Virginian-Pilot (02.20.2012)

The North Carolina law that treats 16-year-old criminal offenders as adults is the toughest of its kind in the nation and has been on the books for nearly a century.

But a few lawmakers and others hope to see it change this year.

Rep. Marilyn Avila, R-Wake, has reintroduced a version of HB632 this session that would incrementally raise the adult offender age to 18. The provision has reached a House committee attached to a separate Senate bill.

Avila and other supporters plan to do some “horse trading” with law enforcement groups that have opposed it in the past.

“I feel very good about it,” she said. “We’ve just got to do a lot of ground work.”

Similar bills going back to 2007 have failed, but this time, Avila said, people have had time to “marinate in their minds what we’re doing.”

Since 1919 in North Carolina, 16- and 17-year-olds have been charged as adults for any crime, even misdemeanors. New York is the only other state that reaches down to age 16 to declare someone an adult, but judges in that state have the discretion to send the offenders to juvenile court, said William Lassiter, spokesman for the North Carolina Division of Juvenile Justice.

Other states begin adult charges at age 17 or 18. Virginia starts adult charges at 18, but juvenile offenders can be transferred to adult court for specific violent crimes.

Changing the law in North Carolina would move 20,000 teens annually into the juvenile system when the conversion is completed, doubling the current load, according to a 2009 report by the North Carolina Governor’s Crime Commission. The report puts the state’s cost for such a move at $85 million annually, with localities spending another $3.4 million.

“Funding is the biggest obstacle,” Lassiter said.

At least six attempts to raise the adult offender age going back to the 1930s have failed, he said.

It costs 50 percent more to convict and detain juveniles because they tend to need more counseling and other assistance programs. But advocates for changing the law say the extra attention in the juvenile system means fewer are likely to return to jail.

Because juveniles can have their criminal records erased once they are adults, they have a better chance to get jobs and earn a higher income. A study that accounts for those benefits, among others, estimates that costs to the state would go down in the long run.

The Conference of District Attorneys opposes the change, as it has past efforts.

“House Bill 632 would jeopardize public safety and overburden an already inadequate juvenile system,” Susan Doyle, president of the North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys, wrote in an email. She is based in Johnston County.

“Our current juvenile system is horribly underfunded and would be crushed under the weight of the requirements of this bill without significant additional funding. What sounds good on paper does not always work in the real world.”

In 2009, 3.7 percent of convictions among 16- and 17-year-olds were for violent felonies, according to statistics from the North Carolina Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission. Of the 368 violent crimes, 26 were either first- or second-degree murder. If Avila’s bill passes, juveniles who commit violent crimes would still go to adult court.

Overall, more than 96 percent were convictions for misdemeanors or low-level felonies.

Money saved in the adult court system would not cover the expense of adding another 20,000 juveniles to the system, according to the Crime Commission report. But a task force appointed by the General Assembly recommended raising the adult offender age because of the benefit to the youths involved.

“Research tells us that treating 16- and 17-year-olds in the juvenile system is better,” said Brandy Bynum, director of Policy and Outreach for Action For Children North Carolina. “I get calls all the time from people saying, ‘I had this happen to me 20 years ago and I’m still dealing with it.’ “

If passed into law, changes would not start until 2016, when 16-year-olds would begin going through the juvenile system. The next year, youths 16-1/2 would shift over, followed by 17-year-olds and then those 17-1/2 in the final year.