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By Mike Conley

McDowell Press

A new bill in the N.C. General Assembly seeks to raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction so that 16- and 17-year-olds who commit misdemeanors would be handled in the juvenile system and not charged as adults.

Proponents say it would be a win for “our families, communities and state finances.”

But the district attorney for McDowell and Rutherford counties said he’s opposed to the bill saying it would not be an effective deterrent and would be too costly.

On Tuesday, N.C. Rep. Marilyn Avila (R-Wake) announced the introduction of HB399, the Young Offenders Rehabilitation Act. This legislation would raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction, so that 16- and 17-year-olds who commit misdemeanors are handled in the juvenile system, not the adult criminal justice system. Avila is the lead sponsor of this bill, according to a news release.

“Raising the age of juvenile jurisdiction will lead to both significant fiscal savings, safer communities, and much better outcomes for children,” stated Avila. “That’s why a strong bipartisan majority of House members voted to approve the bill last year.”

During the 2013-2014 legislative session, the “Raise the Age” legislation overwhelmingly passed the N.C. House of Representatives, but failed to receive a hearing in the N.C. Senate.

The McDowell News contacted both Rep. Josh Dobson, who said he had not taken a position on the bill, and Sen. Ralph Hise, who did respond by deadline on Tuesday. But District Attorney Ted Bell, who is over the 29A Prosecutorial District, said to The McDowell News he doesn’t think it’s a good idea. He is the DA for both McDowell and Rutherford counties.

“I’m opposed to raising the age of juvenile jurisdiction to include 16- and 17-year-olds for several reasons,” said Bell. “First, the estimated cost of this change is $55 million a year, which our court system simply cannot afford. Second, because of the limited dispositions available under the juvenile code in most cases, the juvenile system simply does not serve as an effective deterrent, and given a lack of immediate consequences for failing to abide by the decisions and orders in juvenile court, there is very little to deter continued misbehavior.”

Bell added that in the adult system, however, probation officers have many more options available at their disposal. These include the ability to send the offender immediately to jail and this serves as a greater motivation for the young offender to change their behavior and abide by the courts’ orders and judgments.

“Third, we see two kinds of cases in adult court involving 16- and 17-year-olds,” said Bell. “Those in which the offender was just being a stupid kid and those in which the offender was committing a hardcore criminal act. We have the ability and resources available as prosecutors to recognize the difference and treat them accordingly.

“For the ‘stupid kid’ crimes, we have deferred prosecution programs and treatment programs available to correct their behavior without negatively impacting the rest of their life. For those who commit hardcore criminal acts, we treat them accordingly and I think it is important that the law continue to allow us to do that. I do not believe 16- or 17-year-olds who drive drunk or who commit sexual battery, assault with a deadly weapon, or assault inflicting a serious injury should be treated as a child.”

But proponents of the bill say it would result in better outcomes for the young offenders and the public too. One of them is Marc Levin of Right on Crime and the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. This foundation co-authored a report on raising the age issued by the John Locke Foundation in 2013, according to the news release.

“I am pleased that North Carolina policymakers are increasingly recognizing that high school-aged youngsters who commit a misdemeanor belong in the juvenile justice system where better outcomes for public safety and taxpayers can be achieved,” said Levin in the news release. “Only in the juvenile system do parents of a 16- or 17-year-old have the right to be informed and involved, which is critical for the long-term success of these youth.”

Levin’s focus on improved outcomes for children was echoed by Michelle Hughes, executive director of NC Child, a statewide child advocacy group that has led the movement.

“A criminal conviction in the adult criminal justice system saddles a youth with a criminal record that will undermine his or her future chances at gainful employment, higher education, military service, and even stable housing,” said Hughes in the news release. “It’s no wonder that recidivism rates among 16- and 17-year-olds handled by the adult criminal justice system are more than twice as high as those served by the juvenile justice system.”

North Carolina is one of only two states that automatically prosecute all 16- and 17-year-old alleged misdemeanants as adults, even for low-level offenses like stealing a bag of chips. New York, the only other remaining state to automatically prosecute 16- and 17-year-olds as adults, is expected to pass legislation changing its law later this spring. If that happens, North Carolina would be the only remaining state with this policy.

Source: Juvenile justice changes proposed

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