North Carolina - One of the North Carolina legislature's most talked about bills, which could increase the age limit at which juveniles accused of misdemeanor crimes are charged and tried as adults, might not get to the House floor before this year's legislative session ends.
House Bill 725-the Young Offenders Rehabilitation Act-is awaiting a hearing that has not yet been scheduled by the House Appropriations Committee. Key components of the bill include proposals to establish a 24-member juvenile jurisdiction advisory committee and to create a pilot civil citation process that would expand civil citation programs to every state county by the year 2018. A civil citation program allows juveniles arrested for minor offenses to perform community service and seek counseling in lieu of being charged for a crime.
Most significantly, the bill proposes to increase the age of juvenile jurisdiction to include 16- and 17-year-olds charged with misdemeanor offenses. This means all teenagers under the age of 18 who are accused of misdemeanor crimes would be charged and tried as juveniles in juvenile court. Forsyth County District Judge Denise Hartsfield said under the bill's proposed rules she would have no discretion in deciding whether juveniles-even those accused of severe misdemeanors-should be charged and tried as adults. This bill does not propose raising the age limit at which juveniles charged of felonies can be charged and tried as adults.
Though the bill most likely will not make it through the NC General Assembly this year, as affirmed by a Forsyth County district judge, the state's juvenile justice system already is preparing for the measure's potential passing in the future. Hartsfield said the juvenile court system is looking to increase the number of juvenile courtrooms, detention centers and court counselors to avoid burdening the already-overcrowded juvenile system.
Local defense attorney Locke Clifford said the argument behind the bill to increase the legal age limit is valid. "A 16-year-old is a child, developmentally. The brain hasn't fully developed. The decision-making process is not an adult's decision-making process," he said.
Locke also argued the state's current law puts unfair burdens on 16- and 17-year-olds, whose futures can be jeopardized if they have permanent misdemeanor charges and convictions on their records. "The point is, if you say on a child's 16th birthday-as [North Carolina lawmakers & courts] do now, he or she is an adult. If that child becomes a convicted felon at age 16, that child is a convicted felon from now on. There is no resolution. There is no way to undo that."
Hartsfield agreed with Clifford's point. She said the other "silver lining" within the bill is the likelihood that the raising of the legal age limit could decrease high school dropout rates.
Hartsfield, Clifford and Forsyth County assistant district attorney Mike Silver share a concern about the financial impracticality of the proposal. Locke said, "This is a step in the right direction to raise the age (at which juveniles can be tried as adults). Now the problem, of course, is we (the courts) are not set up that way, and we will have to do a massive funding of the juvenile justice system if we are going to overload the present system with a lot of 17-year-old children. That will be difficult to do in these economic hard times."
Clifford claims, however, it's cheaper to send a child through the juvenile justice system than through the adult system.
WFMY News 2 reached out to the regional juvenile detention center in Guilford County and two of the Youth Rehabilitation Act's primary sponsors-Rep. Marilyn Avila (R-40) and Rep. Tim Moffitt (R-116)-for comment, but they did not return those calls.