Juvenile Age to 18 (HB 632/SB 506), otherwise known as “Raise the Age,” seeks to modify the criminal court system by allowing minors (under age 18) charged with most misdemeanors to be tried in juvenile court. More serious felony charges committed by 16-17 year olds, on the other hand, would remain in adult court with some leeway for a judge’s discretion. On April 7, 2011, the bill was submitted to a House Judiciary Subcommittee and is currently waiting to be placed on the schedule for this session.
Currently, North Carolina prosecutes all 16- and 17-year-olds charged with a crime in the adult criminal justice system regardless of the severity of their alleged crimes. A misdemeanor is usually defined as a lesser crime and often the maximum punishment is less than one year in prison.
However, examples of misdemeanors in North Carolina can include some rather serious offenses such as assault by pointing a gun, assault inflicting serious injury, speeding to elude arrest, prearranged racing, larceny, possession of stolen goods, breaking or entering of building, forcible trespass, resisting delaying or obstructing an officer, simple assault, trespassing, disorderly conduct, shoplifting, and intoxicated and disruptive in public.
Opponents of the bill say Raise the Age is soft on crime and that people, regardless of age, should be held accountable for their actions.
Action for Children, an activist group who supports the bill, says “Raise the Age only applies to young people who commit low level offenses. Serious, violent offenses will remain only in the adult system.”
On May 21, Sen. Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) in the Winston Salem Journal stated, “I’m not inclined in moving in that direction at this point,” referring to the legislation. “I’d be interested in some discussion about it, but nothing I’ve heard so far would convince me that’s — at least for me — where I think we should go.”
Interestingly, there still important unanswered questions in HB 632/SB 506. What happens when the juvenile is originally charged with a felony? When is it appropriate to transfer to adult court? How many times can the juveniles commit misdemeanors before they must go to an adult court?
Other questions still needing to be addressed in this legislation include how the state treats offenders who commit multiple misdemeanor offenses over time, and if there is any opportunity to move a juvenile misdemeanor offender to the adult system if appropriate.
This bill appears to lock the door to all but felony offenders being moved to the adult system. A good lawyer will plead a felony down to a misdemeanor. What about those juveniles who commit a felony but plead to a misdemeanor?
Raise the Age legislation may be a good idea, but it is imperative for lawmakers to answer some important questions before they pass a one size fits all reform.