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Changes Proposed For NC’s Juvenile Justice System

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File photo of handcuffs.(Credit: RODRIGO ARANGUA/AFP/Getty Images)

File photo of handcuffs.(Credit: RODRIGO ARANGUA/AFP/Getty Images)

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Legislators, advocates and prosecutors are talking about changing a century-old law that calls for lawbreakers to be prosecuted as adults starting at age 16 — a measure that remains in effect in only one other state in the country.

The debate about raising the age to 18 comes even as district attorneys say they are seeing younger and younger people committing especially violent crimes, including murder.

Rep. Marilyn Avila, R-Wake, is the primary sponsor of a bill that would raise the age to 18 for teenagers who commit misdemeanors only. Avila initially had drafted a more-expansive bill that would also raise the age for low-level felonies, which would include charges such as breaking into a car, possession of marijuana, common law robbery and involuntary manslaughter.

“We looked at the low-level felonies, and it just gave some people heartburn,” Avila said, adding that it was decided to go for more gradual change. “We said, ‘Let’s look at misdemeanors as a negotiation to get the concept to move.’”

The “Raise the Age” movement has been trying for years to bring more young offenders under the juvenile system, where backers of the idea say teenagers will receive more age-appropriate treatment and punishment. Another reason for the push is that North Carolina teens are at a disadvantage when it comes to getting into a college or getting a job because they have a criminal record while teens from other states, who committed the same crimes, don’t, said Brandy Bynum, director of policy and outreach at Action for Children North Carolina.

“Fifty percent or more of the juveniles who end up with a misdemeanor charge, it’s their first offense,” Avila said. “These are the ones that anybody would agree are the most malleable in the right circumstances and could be kept out of trouble in the future.”

The law determining the age of majority in relation to crime has not been changed since it was first established in 1909. New York is now the only other state in the country where 16- and 17-year-olds are automatically prosecuted in adult court.

But the debate comes at a complicated moment, when law enforcement authorities say they are seeing more and more crimes being committed by younger and younger people.

In New Hanover County, authorities will try as an adult on a first-degree murder charge a 15-year-old who killed a food-delivery man. And in Wake County, four 15-year-olds are being tried as adults in the death of a homeless man whose body was found in a trash can.

“Without question, there are more serious crimes being committed by younger people than at any time I’ve been a prosecutor,” said Ben David, the New Hanover County district attorney and president of the N.C. Conference of District attorneys.

In Wake County, juveniles were involved in four slayings in under a year, District Attorney Colon Willoughby said, describing that number as unprecedented. “If you look at the hard, cold facts, we’re dealing with dangerous kids now that we didn’t have 25 years ago when I started in this business,” he said.

The prosecutors say they will support raising the juvenile age for misdemeanors from 16 to 18 if three criteria are met: adequate funding of the juvenile justice system; consideration of other laws that make 16 the age of majority, such as being able to consent to sex; and allowing DAs to continue to try young people as adults for the most heinous crimes.

“We understand, we really get it that the tail wagging the dog of this debate is that people want to make sure if a young person gets a felony for breaking into cars, that doesn’t stop them from being a productive member of society,” David said.

But those teens need somewhere to go, and the Division of Juvenile Justice doesn’t have the money or staff to handle more people now, David said. The division’s budget has been cut more than 17 percent from its high of almost $166 million in the 2008-09 fiscal year to about $137 million for the current fiscal year. Staffing has dropped almost 19 percent from its high of almost 1,800 full-time equivalents in June 2010 to about 1,445 in May 2013.

Anyone moved to the juvenile justice system from adult courts “needs a place to land” and that means the system will need more money, David said.

Avila’s bill, which now resides in a judiciary committee, would establish a two-year pilot program in three counties, then move 17-year-olds charged with misdemeanors into the juvenile system effective July 1, 2016, followed by 18-year-olds a year later.

Advocates say raising the age for misdemeanors would mean the juvenile justice system would deal with about 8,000 more teens who are convicted of crime, based on data from the State Bureau of Investigation for the 2009-2010 fiscal year.

Avila hasn’t heard yet from legislative researchers trying to determine how much it would cost to move teens convicted of misdemeanors from the adult system to the juvenile system, where the teens ostensibly would receive attention from counselors.

A task force report published in 2011 on a more expansive proposal to raise the age for various crimes concluded that such a plan would cost taxpayers almost $71 million a year, while the investment would generate more than $123 million in recurring benefits to youth, victims and taxpayers over the long term.

Like Avila, Action for Children director Bynum said she’s satisfied with this baby step for now. “Let’s make sure they do it right and not overwhelm the juvenile justice system and bring in 8,000 kids at one time,” she said.

“Let’s make sure the resources are in place and this is an effective policy change. Forty-eight other states have pulled it off, so I think North Carolina can follow their lead.”

(© Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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