RALEIGH — North Carolina is now the nation’s only state charging 16- and 17-year-old delinquents as adults and needs to catch up with the rest of the country, says N.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Martin.
Supporters of a bill that would “Raise the Age” for low-level juvenile offenders call North Carolina’s law a disgrace, and spoke about it Monday at a press conference at the legislative complex. (Watch the entire press conference here.)
New York raised its juvenile age limit to 18 years old last month.
Teenagers in the state’s criminal justice system shouldn’t be forced into adult prisons or carry permanent records for petty crimes, Martin said.
Raising the age would decrease youth recidivism and would save the state money over the long-haul.
Under House Bill 280, the Juvenile Justice Reinvestment Act, teens up to the age of 18 who are charged with nonviolent crimes would qualify as juveniles.
Passing the law should should be a no-brainer for legislators, Martin said.
When a 16-year-old commits a minor theft and is charged as an adult, that charge leaves an ugly mark on the kid’s record, he said.
“In North Carolina [a criminal record] is placed on the internet, and so it becomes part of [any] background investigation. Normally, these cases are handled very quickly, so the child and parents can think it’s well behind them, only to learn five or six years later that it had a very serious effect on [the child’s] ability to participate in the global marketplace.”
H.B. 280 has garnered support from across the political spectrum. Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and House Rules Committee Chairman David Lewis, R-Harnett, back the bill. So do civil liberties groups including the ACLU and law-enforcement organizations like the North Carolina Sheriffs Association and the North Carolina Association of Chiefs of Police.
Law enforcers want to make it easier for juveniles to move past mistakes without lasting consequences, said Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison.
Youth who serve time in adult prisons often are influenced to pursue a life of crime after their release, he said.
“I think this initiative will stop some of that. We need to get behind this initiative. Everybody needs to get behind it. We need to talk about it, [because] it’s well thought out.”
These reforms require money, and a good deal of it, Harrison told lawmakers, pointing out that the system would need more counselors and lawyers to help rehabilitate troubled kids.
Financial concerns have yet to be addressed, but a fiscal note on H.B. 280 is in the works, said Tom Murry, director of the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts.
After a drop in juvenile crime in 2008, the state has reduced its juvenile justice budget by $40 million on a recurring basis.
The state is likely to garner greater long-term financial savings by protecting kids from criminal influences in the adult system, William Lassiter, North Carolina’s deputy commissioner of juvenile justice, told Carolina Journal in March.