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Chief Justice joins proponents of Raise the Age bill to encourage ‘very modest revision of our law’

N.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Martin speaks at a press conference urging legislators to finally raise the age of juvenile prosecution. (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

North Carolina is the last state to prosecute 16- and 17-year-olds as adults, but that may soon change.

Tom Murry, chief legal counsel for governmental affairs at the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC), said he expects legislation to raise the age of juvenile prosecution to move in the next 10 days.

He was joined Monday by legal and criminal justice leaders, experts, advocates and stakeholders for a press conference urging legislators to pass House Bill 280.

“What we’re proposing is a very modest revision of our law,” said N.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Martin. “It is simply that when our teenagers are accused of nonviolent offenses that they are not automatically tried in adult court.”

He said a recent Civitas poll showed 70 percent of North Carolinians supported raise the age legislation, and that there were already diversion programs for teens in at least 11 counties.

“A justice system only works when similar cases are heard in a similar fashion,” Martin said. “We already have raise the age in many areas of our state; now we need to make sure that process is there for every one of our young people in North Carolina.”

Martin convened a 65-member independent, multidisciplinary commission over a year ago to study the judicial system and make recommendations to strengthen the courts. One of the commission committees studied raise the age issues exhaustively and its recommendations served as a foundation for HB280.

The committee also helped sway the N.C. Sheriff’s Association to supporting raise the age legislation. The organization has historically been opposed to such efforts.

Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison spoke at the press conference in support of HB280 but told legislators that the bill would require some money. Just how much is still yet to be determined, according to Murry.

There’s also expected to be some resistance to raising the age of juvenile prosecution for those accused of low-level felonies. Martin’s commission recommended including those low-level felonies in legislation, but Murry seemed happy to compromise when the time comes.

“There was a lot of folks doing high fives when we passed the misdemeanor-only bill [in the House a few years ago],” Murry said. “I think we can push the policy in the right direction without sacrificing public safety, and so I think those mid-level felonies need to be looked at.”

He seemed confident that some sort of legislation would be passed this session no matter what, and credited Martin’s commission for getting the ball rolling. He also pointed to the report when asked why he thought legislators would listen to stakeholders on the raise the age issue and not other bills aimed at making changes to the judiciary.

“I think the biggest X-factor is this report right here,” he said, holding the document up. “This was a bipartisan, multidisciplinary approach and we have enough evidence that even this legislature’s going to listen to this one.”

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