More young people could be tried as adults in North Carolina under bill heading to governor

RALEIGH, N.C. (WITN) – More young people accused of serious crimes in North Carolina would have their cases tried automatically in adult court, under legislation that received final General Assembly approval on Wednesday. The changes would rework some bipartisan juvenile justice reforms that took effect over four years ago addressing 16- and 17-year-old offenders.

The House voted 71-33 to accept changes made last month by the Republican-controlled Senate – with the support of a lobbying group representing elected local prosecutors – to what is known as the “Raise the Age” law.

In late 2019, the bipartisan “Raise the Age” effort ended a mandate that children ages 16 and 17 be tried in the adult criminal justice system. By trying them in juvenile court, the law aimed to help more young people avoid the stigma of having lifetime criminal records and provide services that reduce chances for recidivism.

Still, the law in its current form says that cases of 16- and 17-year-olds accused of the most serious felonies must be transferred to adult court after a notice of an indictment is handed up, or when a hearing determines there is probable cause a crime was committed. There are exceptions.

The language now heading to Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s desk would end the transfer requirement for most of these high-grade felonies and simply place the cases of these youths in adult court right away.

Bill supporters have argued the changes aren’t rolling back “Raise the Age,” but are merely adjustments to reflect practical realities of the criminal justice system – juvenile-court cases for district attorneys are growing, and putting them in adult court to begin with will ease their loads.

But advocates for civil rights and the disabled said last month in committee that the changes are dismantling “Raise the Age” provisions and ultimately harm youthful offenders. Young people in the juvenile system can receive better access to youth-focused treatments before they return to their communities.

Durham County Democratic Rep. Marcia Morey, a former juvenile court judge, urged colleagues not to accept the Senate’s provisions. Morey said these young offenders should be treated uniformly based on their age, and not specifically on crimes.

“The system is working the way it should now,” Morey said. “Rolling back ‘Raise the Age’ with this bill by inventing a fiction of what a juvenile is based on a crime and not the age is the wrong way to go.” Two other former judges in the House also spoke against the Senate provisions.

The House member shepherding the bill, GOP Rep. Ted Davis of New Hanover County, didn’t directly address the voices of opposition on the floor but said several groups and lawmakers were involved in crafting the language.

Cooper’s office didn’t immediately respond Wednesday to an email seeking comment on the bill heading to his desk. The governor can either sign the bill into law or veto it within 10 days of its receipt. Otherwise, it becomes law.

The bill also creates a new process whereby a case can be removed from Superior Court to juvenile court – with the adult records deleted – if the prosecutor and the defendant’s attorney agree to do so.

North Carolina had been the last state in which 16- and 17-year-olds were automatically prosecuted as adults when “Raise the Age” was implemented. These youths are still being tried in adult court for motor vehicle-related crimes.

Children ages 13 through 15 who are accused of first-degree murder still must be automatically transferred to juvenile court upon an indictment or hearing that finds probable cause.

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