A bipartisan group of lawmakers are reviving efforts to increase the age a young person charged with a crime may be tried as an adult in North Carolina, a move heralded by child advocates who say policies automatically charging a 16-year-old as an adult are obsolete.

Previous attempts to increase the age to 18 have failed, largely due to budgetary constraints, but, now, it’s gained bipartisan support by a group of lawmakers who agree that the current laws, passed in 1919, should be revised. Meanwhile, state child advocates are now holding discussions with stakeholders such as law enforcement, court officials and juvenile workers in every county to explore the feasibility of raising the age.

Rep. Alice Bordsen

“We must think that our kids are more evil than kids in other states,” said Rep. Alice Bordsen (D-Alamance), a lead supporter of the effort and a lead sponsor of the House bill. “We try them as an adult at the age of 16. With the exception of a few states, North Carolina is the only state to try them at that age. We are harsher on them and we work less to rehabilitate them, even on low-level offenders. It says that we don’t like our kids.”

North Carolina and New York are the only states that try 16-year-old young people as adults. Eleven states set the age of at 17 years old; 37 states set it at 18.

“It’s short sighted and self-defeating,” said Bordsen, who for the last four years has pushed to raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction with the support of child advocacy group Action for Children North Carolina. Bordsen announced earlier this month she will not run for re-election. “This is something that has needed to change for a long time.”

‘We’re still dramatically underfunded’

When 16- and 17-year-old young people are placed in facilities with older offenders, the chances that they’ll commit more crimes upon their release are higher, Bordsen said. Instead, rehabilitative services could offer such youth behavioral education in a juvenile justice atmosphere.

But that’s not all; the policy also has a negative economic impact on the state, she argued.

“We continue to add restrictions to young people who have any kind of criminal record,” Bordsen said. “A juvenile record can be cloaked in other states, but not in North Carolina, where a criminal record can follow them for the rest of their lives and can prevent them from getting a job or college education.

“If we know what this does to our young people, we are intentionally depriving our state of tax revenue and a broader educated class.”

But, some argue, it’s not that simple.

According to some estimates, adding 16- and 17-year-olds to the juvenile justice system would require a substantial increase in resources — a minimum of $30 million a year to handle the increase.

Chuck Mallonee

“We absolutely need to make the change at some time, but only if the money is there, and right now it isn’t,” said Chuck Mallonee, western area administrator of the N.C. Department of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. “It can only be done successfully if it is appropriately funded with enough resources and counselors to handle the change. We’re still dramatically underfunded.”

During several past legislative sessions, N.C. lawmakers introduced similar bills to up the age a young person can be tried as an adult. But with a sizable state deficit, lawmakers implemented budget cuts for several state agencies last year, and the bills died in committee.

Rep. Marilyn Avila

“Of course the current laws have an economic impact,” said Rep. Marilyn Avila (R-Wake), who is also a primary sponsor of the House bill. “But if the funding is not available, it won’t happen.”

Legislators filed House Bill 632 and Senate Bill 506 last April. In it include provisions for making the age-limit change in six-month increments on a yearly basis, depending on the strength of the state budget.

“I’m happy that there are Republicans in support of it,” said Bordsen, who lauded Sen. Fletcher Hartsell (R-Cabarrus) for his support of the Senate version of the bill. Hartsell is a primary sponsor of the measure. “I find it sad that we couldn’t get it supported before the majority change. Democrats had a hard time with it in the beginning. It’s like Nixon going to China. It had to be during a time of a Republican majority.”

No Western North Carolina state Senators are listed as primary or co-sponsors of the Senate version of the bill. In the House version, Western North Carolina Democrats Rep. Susan Fischer, of Asheville, and Rep. Phillip Haire, of Sylva, and Republicans Rep. Chuck McGrady, of Hendersonville, and Rep. Tim Moffitt, of Asheville, are among the co-sponsors.

Advocates want policy changed soon

According to child advocacy group Action for Children North Carolina, which first began pushing to raise the age, the issue has gained speed despite its obstacles.

“The campaign to raise the juvenile court age from 16 to 18 for youth who commit low-level offenses is well underway for 2012,” said Brandy Bynum, the organization’s policy and outreach director. Bynum said the organization has gotten commitment from legislative leaders that the bill will be heard during the 2012 session.

“Over the last several months, we have been working tirelessly and meeting with constituent groups across the state to raise awareness and garner support from law enforcement and prosecutors, among others,” she said.

Such community discussions are proving valuable, legislators say.

“We want to make sure it’s done deliberately and carefully to get the best results,” Avila said. “It’s still being worked on. Even though (the proposed legislation) is still in committee, there is a lot going on behind the scenes… It’s fairly labor intensive.”

Among the officials consulted in the matter is Judge Marcia Morey, Durham County’s chief District Court judge and former executive director of the Governor’s Commission on Juvenile Crime and Justice, who finds the open talks an adequate measure for the proposed legislation.

“It is important that our law enforcement and court officers have every possible advantage as they work to keep our communities safe,” Morey said in a statement. “In these dire economic times, government must act in a fiscally responsible way to ensure that convicted violent youth are no longer a risk to community safety, and that nonviolent youth are diverted from a path of criminal behavior. It is a smart way to spend taxpayer dollars while providing the best possible services for the future of the youth in North Carolina.”

Opponents say more planning needed, adult courts can better handle serious offenses

But the move to raise the age is not without opposition.

While the current bills may be mindful of state budgetary woes, agencies like the North Carolina Sheriffs’ Association remain leery of them.

“Proponents of the bill have not shared how they will do it,” said Association spokesman Eddie Caldwell. “The Association says that it opposes the current bill because it provides no plan on how to pay for it. We did that with the state mental health policies and it turned out to be a train wreck. That’s what’s being proposed here. Increasing the age by six months at a time will only control the train wreck.”

Caldwell said that the Association is not entirely opposed to the philosophy of rehabilitating youth, but by the lack of proper planning.

“If a plan is put forth and a message is made clear on how to pay for it, the Association will consider it,” he said.

While the N.C. Conference of District Attorneys has not fully examined the proposed legislation, it favors proper prosecution of particularly heinous offenders and shares the concerns of the NCSA.

“It would be extremely costly,” said Peg Dorer, executive director of the NCCDA, referencing the lack of properly funded facilities, rehabilitation programs and the already expensive juvenile justice system. “We welcome the opportunity to talk about it, but there are some juveniles committing very serious crimes in this state without regard for anyone’s safety.”

Dorer added that adult courts are better suited to handle adolescents charged with serious offenses like rape, manslaughter, larceny or murder.

Proposal address some concerns

Because of these concerns, legislators added provisions that those charged with class F through I felonies be reserved for juvenile courts, while more severe A through E felonies be reserved for adult courts.

 Also, under the proposals, the age increase wouldn’t begin being implemented until 2016, with six-month increases implemented with consideration of the state budget.

Regardless of the cost increases, bill supporters argue that the age increase will prove a cost-effective investment to the state, augmented by a broadened moral compass.

“Research has shown that by investing in juvenile justice and delinquency prevention, that we create safer communities and avoid future criminal justice costs, even for 16 and 17 year olds,” Bynum said. “The time has come for North Carolina to recognize in law what it knows to be morally right—it’s time to raise the age.”

“There will be an initial investment,” Bordsen agreed. “But in the long run we will save money by reducing recidivism rates. I will just be happy to see it pass.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated which class felonies would be tried in adult courts.

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Davin Eldridge is a contributing reporter with Carolina Public Press. Contact him at davinleldridge@gmail.com.

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