Unfortunately for some North Carolinians, the effort to increase the age at which adolescents are charged as adults was halted yet again in Raleigh last week, say legislators.
Earlier this year, legislators introduced Senate Bill 434 to “raise the age” of juvenile jurisdiction from 16 to 18. In previous years, the initiative died in committee in the form of other bills and without bipartisan support. As Republicans have taken the majority in Raleigh, the bill seemed promising for proponents of the initiative, as it gained steam due to the newfound support of Republicans.
Currently, North Carolina is one of only two states which automatically prosecute all 16- and 17-year-olds as adults for any type of crime, from theft of a candy bar to more heinous crimes like rape or murder.
Eleven states have set the age at 17, while the other 37 states have set the age of adulthood at 18. New York is the only other state to try 16- and 17-year-olds as adults for criminal matters. According to the child advocacy group Action For Children (AFC), about 22,000 young people in North Carolina will suffer because of the current juvenile justice system. The current policy, it points out, is nearly a century old, and does more harm than good.
And although SB 434 unanimously passed House Judiciary Subcommittee A on June 20, where it had died during previous sessions, it failed in late July. This year it failed in a Senate appropriations committee.
The initiative will now move to the Legislative Research Committee to review the steps necessary to fully implement the policy change for next year. Advocates, including conservatives and progressives, say the review is a strong step toward finally changing the state's current law.
According to Marilyn Avila (R-Wake), the bill failed yet again this year because of two primary issues — feasibility and funding. Avila signed as one of the bill’s chief sponsors this year.
“A lot of people were hesitant about funding it,” said Avila, explaining many legislators were wary of the policy change due to the economy. “You got a system that is not working and right now we just don’t have the funding to fix it.” She added that it is now the intention of senate majority lawmakers to beef up the current system to make it ready for a change, by making sure the state can accrue the proper funding as well as collecting the proper data of the current system. “We would like to come back with recommendations in the long session.”
“We want to look at what it is and find out what needs to be addressed,” Avila continued, adding that currently there is considerable discretion with the presiding judge and the district attorney in each juvenile case. “We want an evidencebased program as their standard resource for sentencing… It feels like a good step. Evidence is key.”
This year’s bill will resemble next year’s prospective bill to “raise the age,” explained Avila. As with most bills, Avila explained that SB 434 will be used as a basis for next year’s bill, with revisions. “It will be a graduated approach. Every bill builds off of the next one,” she said.
Under SB 434, 16- and 17-year-olds who commit misdemeanors would have no longer been tried in the adult system. Instead, rather than simply being incarcerated, juveniles would be dealt with in the juvenile system, which offers rehabilitative education and insists on appropriate punishment and restitution. Young people that commit serious, more felonious offenses would remain in the adult system.
In essence, the bill would not only have raised the age at which youth are tried as adults for misdemeanor crimes, but it would have ensured that all 16- and 17-year-olds accused of a felony remain in adult court. In order to keep the state’s juvenile policy change manageable, both administratively and financially, the bill sought to increase the age in half-year increments, contingent upon funding, beginning in 2016.
“North Carolina's children, families and taxpayers need and deserve a smarter approach to dealing with children charged with misdemeanors,” said Avila in a statement earlier this month. “After achieving strong bipartisan support for raising the age this session, my colleagues and I will now carefully craft the specifics necessary to make this important change a reality. In making the change, we will reduce crime, save taxpayers money and give North Carolina's children the same shot at success as kids in 48 other states.”
Avila added that the current policy is an economic hindrance for the state, as adolescents with criminal records have a harder time obtaining competitive jobs, joining the military or entering a college.
AFC Director of Policy and Outreach Brandy Bynum, who has earnestly supported the initiative, remains hopeful of next year’s reintroduction. “We look forward to the LRC taking a serious look at what system changes need to be addressed to move N.C. to raise the age,” she said in a statement last week. “First, we applaud our legislative supporters on both sides of the aisle for their due diligence to this very important issue.”
But not all legislators are happy with the bill’s failure this time around.
“We worked hard on this for six years now and it’s sad that we’re just not there yet,” said Alice Bordsen (D-Alamance), who had spearheaded the effort since its inception over half a decade ago. “I am glad and grateful to Marilyn Avila that is still alive ... I think the majority is making it more complex than it needs to be. They basically stonewalled the issue.”
“Young people are reclaimable. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel on this,” Bordsen continued, expressing that North Carolina’s drive to be independent from other states policywise is, in this case, counter-productive. She pointed out that many states have juvenile justice systems in place that produce low recidivism rates. “North Carolina still prefers to punish people rather than get them better. We are not a forgiving state or a forgiving society.”
But regardless of political-philosophical qualms, both Avila and Bordsen agree that lawmakers and citizens working together, is paramount to the success of the initiative. “Raising the age is something for all of us to pay attention to,” said Avila. “Our young people are our future, so we shouldn’t punish them all for their past.”