Increasing the age rollback? New NC bill on juvenile justice

A proposal that would require some 16- and 17-year-olds to be tried initially as adults in North Carolina courts took a step forward Tuesday, despite concerns from some that it would roll back protections for youth.

Currently, youth under the age of 18 are tried in state juvenile court after a petition is filed.

If a 16- or 17-year-old minor commits a class A through G felony, the case must be transferred from juvenile court (after probable cause is found or after the teen is charged) to the state’s superior courts to to be tried as an adult. A prosecutor can also refuse to transfer certain crimes to the higher court.

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Class AG crimes range from high-level crimes, such as murder, to mid-level crimes, such as committing a robbery using threats or violence.

But a new bill with bipartisan support would change this transfer process.

Changes under the proposal

House Bill 834, among other provisions, would amend the state’s definition of a delinquent juvenile to exclude 16- to 18-year-olds who commit Class AE crimes.

This means that these cases will now begin in the higher court.

The bill would ensure “that the right cases, if they exist, can be sent to juvenile court,” said Chuck Spahos, a lobbyist for the N.C. Conference of District Attorneys, a state-funded association that lobbies the Legislature.

Critics said these changes would undo criminal justice reforms, including provisions signed into law in 2017 and implemented in 2019, known as Raise the Age.

However, proponents called it a procedural change that would streamline processes.

Concerns about ‘raising the age’

The Raise the Age Act pulled 16- and 17-year-olds accused of misdemeanors and low-level crimes, such as thefts, burglaries and other non-violent crimes, from the adult system to the juvenile justice system.

By law, all criminal cases for youth up to age 18 begin in juvenile court, with a requirement that higher-level crimes be transferred to adult court after a hearing or indictment.

“We’re kind of reversing the process that we have now,” Sen. Lisa Grafstein, a Democrat from Raleigh, said during a committee hearing in the General Assembly on Tuesday.

“This appears to be a fairly significant rollback of ‘Raise the Age,’ which I think we made a broad commitment to. I just wanted to bring this to your attention because it is concerning,” Grafstein said.

Spahos said there are “less than 500 cases per year transferred to a higher court. This is not a wholesale undoing of Raise the Age.”

“These are the cases that are going to end up in the superior court anyway, and everyone who has been involved in this agrees,” including the state Department of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, “that this only removes some of the procedural parts of that . while ensuring that the appropriate cases, if any, can be sent to juvenile court,” Spahos said.

Sen. Danny Britt, a Republican from Robeson County, echoed this, saying, “The majority of these violent crimes are actually processed by a higher court anyway.”

“For example, if you have a county like Robeson County, you have a huge backlog of juvenile cases in juvenile court that are unnecessarily taking longer than necessary, causing the case to get stuck,” he said.

Kerwin Pittman of the social justice advocacy group Emancipate NC echoed Grafstein’s concerns about rolling back Raise the Age, saying, “This is not just a procedural change.”

This will “essentially put young people in a position where they will no longer be able to get a sense of restorative justice back for them because it will be moving them into an adult setting.”

Tara Muller of Disability Rights North Carolina said this bill will impact children with disabilities, who make up the vast majority of youth in the criminal justice system.

The bill – which has already passed the House of Representatives – was approved by a Senate judiciary committee after amendments and now moves to the Rules Committee, where bills often go to the floor for a vote first if they are approved.

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Luciana Perez Uribe Guinassi is a political reporter for News & Observer. She reports on health care, including mental health care and Medicaid expansion; higher education; hurricane recovery and lobbying efforts. Luciana previously worked as a Roy W. Howard Fellow at Searchlight New Mexico, an investigative news organization.