Updated, 4:17 p.m. to include statement from Gov. Roy Cooper.
RALEIGH — Juvenile offenders 16 and older are charged and tried in North Carolina as adults, no matter how minor the offense.
State lawmakers call the law outrageous, and Gov. Roy Cooper agrees.
House Bill 280, sponsored by Reps. Chuck McGrady, R- Henderson; Duane Hall, D-Wake; Susan Martin, R-Wilson; and David Lewis, R-Harnett; would classify all delinquents with minor offenses — up to the age of 17 — as juvenile offenders.
“When I jumped into this role as the bill sponsor, I quickly found out that I had more legislators who wanted to be sponsors than I had spots,” McGrady said in a news conference Wednesday.
Republican and Democrat lawmakers packed the legislative conference room in support of raising the age. The juvenile system is designed to prevent repeat offenses by offering counsel to families of troubled teens, McGrady said.
North Carolina joins New York as one of two states that continues to charge and prosecute older juveniles as adults.
Legislators on multiple occasions have introduced legislation to raise the age, but those bills failed. The debate has gone on for 90 years, lawmakers say.
Pushback mostly has centered on concerns over costs to taxpayers, William Lassiter, North Carolina’s deputy commissioner of juvenile justice, told Carolina Journal.
Some legislators worry about “looking soft on crime,” Lassiter said.
“I think it’s the exact opposite. I think it’s smart on crime. It’s really looking at your best chance for taking a juvenile and making sure that they’re not [going to commit] another crime in the future,” he said.
New legislation would include only lower-level felonies — petty theft, littering, or drug possession, for example, Lassiter said. Violent crimes such as assault, rape, and murder still would place a 16- or 17 year-old offender under the full judgment of the adult system.
Eight thousand 16- and 17-year-old offenders last year faced 20,000 charges, and just 187 from that group were charged with serious or violent offenses. The remaining 7,813 kids would have fared better in the juvenile system, he said.
Reform would remove minor juvenile offenses from offenders’ permanent records.
“I was working with just recently with a 16-year-old who threw a plastic bottle on the ground and got charged with littering. That turned into a misdemeanor offense, and he will have to [report on job or school applications] that he has a criminal offense for the rest of his life — for littering,” Lassiter told CJ, pointing to the effect a criminal record has on college and job opportunities.
“If we’re able to change [a kid’s] life in the juvenile justice system, and they’re able to get beyond that, it can have huge economic advantages for that child moving forward.”
Young people forced into the adult corrections system are often bullied, abused, or recruited by gangs, Lassiter said.
Raising the age likely would cost several hundred million dollars over a three- to five-year period, said McGrady. Much of the additional money would go to infrastructure and legal training for law enforcement and juvenile system workers.
Such measures may incur long-term savings. Already, a reduction in juvenile crime has saved the state money, Lassiter told CJ.
“Since 2008, we’ve been able to reduce the Juvenile Justice System budget and save North Carolina almost $40 million on a recurring basis. So every year we’re saving the taxpayers almost $40 million, because we’ve been seeing juvenile crime decrease — and the number of kids committed to long-term facilities is also going down.”
The bill would take effect Dec. 1, 2019.
H.B. 280 will see significant support across parties in both the House and Senate, said Rep. Kelly Alexander, D-Mecklenburg.
“We have for once come together at the same time in the same ways around the same piece of legislation,” Alexander said. “The Legislative Black Caucus, both on the House side and the Senate side, are 100 percent behind this change. You can count on us.”
Cooper issued a statement Tuesday afternoon backing the proposal.
“Law enforcement, the courts, and experts on juveniles agree that raising the age makes sense for North Carolina, and that’s why my budget includes initial investments to make this happen. Raising the age can actually save North Carolina money in the long run if juvenile justice needs are adequately funded, and it makes communities safer by giving young people an opportunity to turn away from a life of crime. I believe we can find common ground across political lines to raise the age and make progress for North Carolina,” the governor said.