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'Raising The Age' Of Juveniles Has Some WNC Officials Wary, Despite Support In Raleigh

The push to 'Raise The Age' of juvenile jurisdiction in North Carolina has the most support yet this year, with the majority of state representatives sponsoring it, on either side of the aisle.

The push to ‘Raise The Age’ of juvenile jurisdiction from 16 to 18 has been a long-fought battle in North Carolina.  Support for that change is growing this year, on both sides of the aisle, but it has some in Western North Carolina wary. 

North Carolina’s current law, passed in 1919, says that anyone charged with any crime whatsoever, will be tried as an adult starting at age 16.  New York is the only other state with such a law.  Critics in the Tar Heel State call this obsolete and counterproductive. 

Rob Thompson is a senior policy advisor at NC Child, a state youth advocacy group:

“I do think that a message that we should be sending is, and it’s maybe the opposite of the one that we are sending is that kids make a lot of mistakes, and they deserve second chances. We need to do what we can to get that kids life back on track—not make it worse.”

In previous years, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have filed bills seeking to make the change from 16 to 18 years-of-age, but always ended up dying in committee. This year, it’s different.  House Bill 280 was introduced in early March by Henderson County Republican Chuck McGrady, and it has four primary sponsors—three Republicans and one Democrat. On top of that, the bill also has 68 co-sponsors—a majority of representatives, evenly split down the aisle.

“Which is the most I’ve ever seen on a bill,” that’s William Lassiter, deputy secretary of juvenile justice for the North Carolina Department of Public Safety. “We’re really excited about it, and it’s evenly split between Democrats and Republicans. The current piece of legislation wouldn’t be implemented until December 1, 2019, and so that would give the state the time it would need, and getting the resources they need to be ready for this change. It’s really important that we get it right.”

Previous incarnations of the measure were killed due to fears of appearing soft on crime, or creating unfunded mandates for state and local governments. After nearly a decade of efforts to raise the age on behalf of lawmakers, this year’s incarnation finally has it right, says Lassiter.

“The big difference between this bill and past bills is that that work was done. We went and met with stakeholders, we talked to stakeholders, about what their concerns were. Is there someone out there that still may disagree? Quite possibly. But what I would say is this was a compromise bill that reflects all the stakeholders that are involved in the criminal justice system in the state of North Carolina.”

He adds that, aside from studies showing that a human brain isn’t fully developed until 25, there are economic implications to be considered.  Like being able to get a job, go to school, join the military or find a residence.

“We believe in the long run that this is going to save the state lots of money, but, more importantly, it’s the right thing to do. The juvenile justice system for a lot of 16 and 17 year olds would be the last resort that could save them from a life of criminal behavior.”

For former juvenile offenders like 24-year-old Kaylin Frame, House Bill 280 is a step in the right direction, albeit too little too late for someone like her. Back in high school, Frame was having an argument with her girlfriend at the time. It didn’t go well, she explained, so she stormed off for class. 

“By the time I get to the door, there’s somebody grabbing me by my shoulder, and I didn’t know who they were so I just threw an elbow back like ‘don’t touch me’.”

It turns out, that ‘somebody’ was a school resource officer grabbing her shoulder. 

“I was being slammed on the ground, and I got arrested because it was a cop, and she got me for assault on a government official.”

For the assault, Frame was expelled from school. She was 16 at the time, and subsequently pled guilty to the charge, thinking it would be expunged by the time she turned 18. It was a dumb mistake, she admits, one that costs her to this day, where she can be found working on earning a GED from Southwestern Community College in Franklin.

“It sucks! It sucks, because you look back and you’re like ‘wow, I was so young. I made a mistake, and it’s still haunting me’.” 

Despite working out all the kinks, there are still some officials in the state that are wary of the change, like Western North Carolina District Attorney Ashley Welch.

“Young people need a little more attention than help. My concern is that, if you just raise the age, it takes away a lot of our discretion so there’s certain crimes that really need to be prosecuted very seriously like homicides, rapes. There’s always been this provision that we can transfer juveniles to adult court. I tried to do that one time, and it’s in the discretion of the court and it was denied.”

Welch can see why the state needs to update its current policy, however as a district attorney, she doesn’t want to be caught flat-footed.

“The message it sends is that, at least from a prosecutor’s standpoint, that you don’t trust prosecutors to make the right decision. In one way I support it, but I have reservations. But I don’t like the way it’s being pushed right now, because it takes away a lot of our discretion.”

Last year, there were nearly 20,000 criminal charges filed against 16 and 17 year olds throughout the state, impacting roughly 7,000 people in that age group. Of those charges, nearly 5,100 were received by juveniles in Western North Carolina, according to the Department of Public Safety. The vast majority of those charges turned out as misdemeanors, while 187 ended up as A through E felonies—charges which HB280 would retain for the adult system. 

Chuck Mallonee, who oversees juvenile justice in Western North Carolina for the Department of Public Safety, says he's excited to see that 'Raising The Age' has such broad, bipartisan support.

"In the thirty-plus years I’ve spent working in juvenile justice, I’ve had a chance to see great kids make impulsively bad decisions -- decisions they would never make give more time to think or more years of maturity," said Mallonee in a written statement. "I’ve been fortunate to see those kids work through a juvenile justice system that focuses on giving them a chance to right their wrongs without a permanent record against them, and to go on to become very successful members of our community."

Having raised two teenagers of his own, Mallonee feels there is little difference between the thinking of a 15 year-old and a 16 year-old, yet he says the state continues to treat them as someone his age.

"This is wrong, and it costs Western North Carolina every day in terms of the future of our youth, and the earning potential of our area.  We’ve got a chance to do the right thing, but if the legislature trusts us to carry out this important task, I hope they trust we know what resources we need to do it right.  We’ve got the most educated, competent and committed professionals to make this change work, and we are ready for the challenge!".

According to Lassiter, HB 280 actually does expedite the work that a District Attorney would have to do to transfer an adolescent to adult court, with regards to most felonies.

Next up, the bill must pass judiciary committee, and then it’s on to appropriations, before going to a senate vote. 

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