North Carolina remains one of only two states in the country to continue to prosecute 16- and 17-year-olds as adults, regardless of the crime they commit. The only other state with a similar law is New York.
Two bills in the Senate and House would amend the law to allow teens under 18 who commit non-violent crimes to be prosecuted as juveniles.
State Sen. Ellie Kinnaird (D-Dist. 23) is championing legislation, which she maintains is anything but soft on crime.
“If we can get these kids going the right direction, they’ll be productive citizens,” she said. “They’ll be taxpayers. They’ll be a model for the next generation.”
Kinnaird and child advocates believe the age in North Carolina should be raised for teens who commit minor crimes to eighteen.
Those advocates spent last week presenting their case to a legislative subcommittee in Raleigh.
“Generally speaking, 16- and 17-year-olds fare better when you treat them as kids rather than adults,” said Frank Crawford with the Children’s Alliance.
Right now, 16- and 17-year-olds are automatically tried as adults.
Tim Bodford, from Camp I Can serving Surry, Wilkes, Stokes, and Yadkin counties, agrees. He supports the bill and hopes North Carolina makes an investment to rehabilitate troubled youth too.
“North Carolina needs to stop treating kids that make childish decisions as adults,” said Bodford. “Of the children that have attended our programs, you’ll find that most of them straighten up once they realize that they have someone to talk to. After all, communication should be the goal, not a rush to incarcerate.”
Bodford indicated that kids who go through the adult system are re-arrested, reconvicted, re-incarcerated and have their probation revoked at higher rates than other adult offenders.
“You can raise the age, but what you can’t do is leave a vacuum and not fund vital programs that have successfully reached and worked with troubled youth,” said Bodford. “Judges and prosecutors care, but you need to give them options and diversify funding for programs that are committed toward helping children.”
An analysis by the North Carolina Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission found that kids handled in the juvenile justice system repeat offend far less than youth dealt with in the adult system.
Some law enforcement agencies and district attorneys have concerns about the proposal, particularly the costs.
Opponents point out that adding 16- and 17-year-old minor offenders to the juvenile system would cause it to double in size at a time when the state is tightening its belt on spending.
A 2011 study found raising the age would cost taxpayers about $71 million a year initially, but it would generate $123 million in recurring benefits long term — partly due to less crime and lower incarceration costs.