Cooper vetoes bill making juvenile justice changes

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  • Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed a bill Friday that would make changes to North Carolina's juvenile justice laws.
  • Critics argued that the bill would roll back North Carolina's "Raise the Age" reforms.
  • House Bill 834 had bipartisan support. Cooper has used his veto stamp twice this year and 96 times since taking office in 2017.

Gov. Roy Cooper pulled out his veto stamp a second time this year — this time striking down a bill making changes to North Carolina’s “Raise the Age” legislation.

Cooper handed down his veto of House Bill 834 at 4:59 p.m. Friday.

“Most violent crimes, even when committed by teenagers, should be handled in adult court,” Cooper wrote in his veto message. “However, there are cases where sentences would be more effective and appropriate to the severity of the crime for teenagers if they were handled in juvenile court, making communities safer.”

“This bill makes this important option highly unlikely and begins to erode our bipartisan ‘Raise the Age’ law we agreed to four years ago,” Cooper added. “While a number of Senators worked to make this legislation better than the original bill, I remain concerned that this new law would keep some children from getting treatment they need while making communities less safe. Instead, the legislature should invest significantly more in our juvenile justice system to ensure resources are available to help prevent crimes and appropriately deal with children who break the law.”

The bill expanded the offenses for which 16- and 17-year-olds are tried as adults. 

“If a juvenile was 16 years of age or older at the time the juvenile allegedly committed an offense that would be a Class F or G felony if committed by an adult, the court shall transfer jurisdiction over the juvenile to the superior court for trial as in the case of adults unless the prosecutor declines to prosecute in a superior court…” reads the bill

Critics of the reforms say it rolls back some of the protections for 16- and 17-year-olds accused of crimes, but supporters say it streamlines the process and keeps the more violent offenders in custody.

“A lot of prosecutors and law enforcement officers have been complaining that too many dangerous 16 and 17-year-old offenders are being released back onto the streets,” Jon Guze, senior fellow of legal studies at The John Locke Foundation, told Carolina Journal. “This bill responds to those complaints by rolling back the ‘Raise the Age’ reforms enacted in 2017. In particular, it expands the range of offenses for which 16 and 17-year-old offenders will be prosecuted as adults rather than juveniles.”

The Division of Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention and the North Carolina Department of Public Safety acknowledge in their statement that the bill does provide an avenue to transfer some cases back to the juvenile division.

“The Department of Public Safety worked with interested stakeholders to amend HB 834 to its present form,” said William Lassiter, deputy secretary of the DJJDP. “Specifically, the Department sought to add components to the bill that will allow juveniles to be removed from adult court and transferred to juvenile court if all parties involved believe that is the best option to protect public safety and in the best interest of the juvenile involved.”

However, Lassiter acknowledges in the remainder of his statement that juveniles would be tried in adult court for the most serious infractions. 

“This bill reflects what the Department originally agreed to under the Raise the Age compromise with stakeholders: that the most serious offenses and violent 16- and 17-year-olds would be transferred to adult court,” continued Lassiter.  “This bill expedites the process to put these cases in adult court but also, due to the Department’s influence, provides the possibility to move these cases to juvenile court. The Department also pushed to add a provision (which is included) to charge adults who influence youth to commit crimes with the exact same crime as the juvenile. This was put into place to try and stop older adults from using youth to commit crimes for them.” 

House Bill 834 had bipartisan support in the state legislature. It passed House in June with seven Democrats in favor, and just one Republican opposed. It passed the Senate in May with all Republicans and 11 Democrats on board. However, Guze warns that there is more work needed, like addressing staffing shortages in public safety.

“While I understand why the General Assembly did what it did, my own view is that these changes are unlikely to solve the problem and could even make things worse,” he said. “Research has shown that the best way to deter crime isn’t to increase the severity of punishment; it’s to make punishment more swift and more certain. Furthermore, in a development that’s almost certainly related, police staffing levels have declined, too. If we really want to deal with juvenile crime—and crime in general—we need to find the money to hire more police officers and pay them higher salaries. We also need to elect judges and district attorneys who will use their authority to detain potentially dangerous offenders regardless of their age.”    

Cooper’s second veto this year marks his 96th veto since taking office in 2017. Legislators have voted to override 42 of those vetoes, including all 19 vetoes Cooper issued in 2023.