North Carolina lawmakers will not be considering laws that would amend the legal age of adult criminal responsibility to 18 this year. So far, no bill on the matter has been introduced this legislative session, and it is likely no bill will be passed, say officials, as budget cuts in Raleigh are paramount for many legislators.
Currently, any person 16 years of age or older who has committed a crime of any kind is charged as an adult in North Carolina courts. Eleven states have set the age at 17, while the other 37 states have set the age of adulthood at 18. New York is the only other state to try 16- and 17-year-olds as adults for criminal matters.
Bills pushing for the age change have died in finance committees in the last two sessions, due to the high price tag that would come with them. Adding 16- and 17-year-olds to the cases handled by the juvenile justice system would require more case workers and funding. “In this budget year, it just doesn’t seem likely that that will happen,” said Chuck Mallonee, Chief Juvenile Court Counselor of the seven westernmost counties of N.C. Mallonee is in favor of increasing the age of adulthood.
“It’s a legitimate concern,” said Sen. Jim Davis, who has not taken an official opinion on the matter as of yet. “I would be curious to know why we would want to do that —what’s broken that needs to be fixed.”
Eleven states have set the age at 17, and 37 states have set the age of adulthood at 18. North Carolina and New York try 16- and 17-yearolds as adults.
As a special provision of the 2009-10 North Carolina budget, the General Assembly created the Youth Accountability Planning Task Force [YAPTF] after Action for Children [AFC] and similar groups pushed for legislative change in previous years.
The task force was charged with examining and researching the issues of the juvenile age jurisdiction in North Carolina in order to determine whether the state should amend the laws concerning persons who are 16 and 17 years old and have committed a crime.
In January, the YAPTF concluded that increasing the criminal age of responsibility from 16 to 18 for lower-end offenders would prove beneficial for many in the age group, as the juvenile justice system offers rehabilitative therapy to its clients. For 16- and 17- year-olds who commit class A-E felonies (murder, rape, manslaughter, drug crimes, burglary or larceny, etc.), “the adult court may be better suited to dispose of these cases,” read the recommendation.
“The idea is to take that huge percentage of cases that are not A-E felonies and put them in juvenile court to give the judge room to decide what the best treatment that child needs,” said Mallonee, adding that many juveniles under such circumstances would be saved from permanently damaging their adult record.
However, preserving a juvenile’s record may not be in the best interest of a child offender, or the state, remarked Eddie Caldwell, N.C. Sheriff’s Association spokesman. “If you have a kid that committed a bunch of crimes when they were 13 or 14, it does not make sense then to keep their record confidential when they become 16 or 17, and they keep on committing those same crimes,” he said, adding that the nature of the offense should always be considered with juveniles.
“If it’s a kid that’s done something wrong — as we all have — some worse than others, for the first time, then how do you deal with that child as opposed to the one that you’ve dealt with 100 times before?” asked Caldwell. “None of the advocates of this legislation are making that distinction.”
“There’s a lot of studies that have shown us that kids who go into juvenile systems are less likely to commit future crimes and that kids who are put into adult systems are much more likely to commit future crimes,” AFC vice president Sorien Schmidt said last year. “They are also more likely to become more violent over time.”
While studies have been made, Caldwell said that advocates of the change have not cited studies that show the mind of a 16- or 17-year-old is unable to differentiate between right and wrong. “Currently we allow that age group to decide whether or not they want to drop out of school, and that decision is no less important to the future of that child, and no less critical to their success than whether or not they commit a crime,” he said.
Caldwell says the Sheriff’s Association is in favor of allotting the DJJ with the proper resources for its current overall workload.
“The first thing that ought to be done is provide adequate resources to the Department of Juvenile Justice and Delinquent Prevention,” said Caldwell, in agreement with Mallonee, who also feels that the department is currently underfunded.
In the end, the report asserted that raising the age would save taxpayers money by reducing recidivism rates. “It’s going to be cheaper for the community in the long run when you treat these kids in juvenile court. When they have a better chance at getting a job, there is a broader tax and work force base down the road,” he said.