Tried and through

For the third consecutive legislative session, lawmakers in both houses of the N.C. General Assembly have introduced bills that would raise the age at which some juvenile offenders are tried as adults from 16 to 18.

House Bill 632 and Senate Bill 506 were introduced in April; state officials and child-advocacy groups have been pushing for the change in recent years, saying the current law — passed in 1919 — is outdated and economically destabilizing. The bills died in committee, but the language was pasted into another bill, SB 434, that’s expected to be considered during next year’s short session.

Thirty-seven states set the legal age at 18; 11 more use age 17. New York is the only other state that tries 16-year-olds as adults.

"We're sending kids to the adult system, where they do not get rehabilitation, they are not required to get their parents or guardians involved in the court process and proceedings, they do not get therapy. And they end up having a record that lasts a lifetime, which prevents them from ever getting jobs here in North Carolina," says Barb Bradley of Action for Children North Carolina, a statewide child-advocacy organization.

In essence, the current situation favors juvenile offenders from other states, whose youthful crimes have been expunged from their records at age 18, notes Bradley, adding that this negatively affects North Carolina’s economic competitiveness.

The current system, she maintains, succeeds only in boosting the recidivism rate. "By sending juveniles into the adult system, we're sending them into environments with hardened criminals, and they come out with lower prospects for jobs but with the knowledge that criminals have," Bradley explains. "By keeping them in the juvenile-court system, they receive far more services."

Asheville City Council member Gordon Smith, who’s worked as a child and family therapist for 10 years, agrees. “Here, we have a detention center that sees results with the younger juveniles,” he notes, adding, “I think raising the age would carry on that impact."

Paying the piper

But attempts to change the juvenile age limit have collided head-on with the state’s budget woes. "The previous bills failed because we already have an underfunded juvenile system,” reports Rep. Alice Bordsen, the primary sponsor of those bills. “How could we expect to pay for it? Adding to the department's cases with the new age groups would cost even more that we don't have," the Alamance County Democrat explains.

Because of the budgetary and workload obstacles the juvenile system faces, the General Assembly created the Youth Accountability Planning Task Force in 2009 to research the issue and determine whether the state should amend the age law.

Earlier this year, the task force recommended raising the age from 16 to 18 for those charged with less serious crimes, so they could take advantage of the rehabilitation services the juvenile-justice system provides. The adult court, said the task force, "may be better suited to dispose of cases" involving adolescents charged with felonies such as murder, rape, manslaughter, burglary, drug offenses or larceny.

Backed by these recommendations, the current bills have found bipartisan support — perhaps because the process of raising the age limit wouldn’t begin until 2016 — and then only if the general assembly felt the economy had sufficiently improved that the state could afford to take on the additional costs. At that point, the age threshold would be increased by six months each year until it reached 18.

Show me the money

The current bills may reflect political realities, but the North Carolina Sheriffs’ Association remains skeptical. "The association's position is that they are opposed to the current legislation that proposes raising the juvenile age without providing the programs, facilities and funding that are necessary to do so," spokesman Eddie Caldwell explains.

Without that funding, Caldwell predicts, the bills would "devastate" the criminal-justice system. The delayed implementation, he maintains, would merely make "the train wreck … a slow crash instead of a fast crash."

Rep. David Lewis, one of the House bill’s primary sponsors this year, defends the effort. "Pushing the change back to 2016 is an attempt to overcome budget concerns," he notes. "Candidly, I don't know if this is adequate or not, but I knew we didn't want the budget to hold up the discussion of the bill,” the Harnett County Republican explains.

Debby Burchfield, the director of Buncombe County’s Juvenile Detention Center, shares the concerns about funding. Her facility, which serves the state’s 16 westernmost counties, would need to be expanded, she says. "The biggest impact would be physical space, other than additional personnel."

Currently, the JDC handles some 350 to 400 youths per year, Burchfield reports. "Some kids stay just 24 hours, while most stay an average of seven to 10 days. Most of our kids are misdemeanor offenders awaiting adjudication, and some of them are undisciplined. There really aren't many violent offenders."

Proponents of the bills say reducing the recidivism rate will ultimately prove cost-effective.

"It saves you money in the near future and in the distant future," Bordsen maintains, adding that implementation could still be delayed, if necessary. “We control the calendar: If we need to give them more time, we can stretch the whole thing out longer."

— Freelance writer Davin Eldridge lives in Macon County. He can be reached at DavinLEldridge@gmail.com.

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