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Raise the Age legislation passes first House hurdle, will head to appropriations next

House lawmakers on the Judiciary I Committee gave Raise the Age legislation a favorable report in a unanimous voice vote Wednesday.

House Bill 280 is now expected to be heard tomorrow morning in the House Appropriations Committee meeting.

Community members, advocates and stakeholders flooded the meeting in the Legislative Office Building on Wednesday and a few got the chance to speak in favor of raising the juvenile age of prosecution from 16 and 17 years old to 18 years old.

Ben David, the New Hanover County District Attorney, said that only 3 percent of juvenile cases he handles involve violent felonies, and that he’s often the first to ask for those cases to be transferred to Superior Court — something HB280 still allows.

“What about the other 97 percent?” David asked. “The other 97 percent, as we have all done when we were younger, made mistakes, and unlike many of other states, in fact the other 49, when our juveniles make them, they get branded for life. They wear the scarlet letter F for felony or M for misdemeanor, and when they do their lives are different.”

David said the adult criminal system sets kids on a different trajectory in life, one that involves despair and a revolving door to the criminal justice system.

“College is not going to take them, federal student loans won’t finance it, the military most likely won’t enroll them and federal housing says, ‘not here,'” he said. “Who’s going to hire a young person with a criminal record? The street has always been an equal opportunity employer.”

New Hanover County Chief District Court Judge J.H. Corpening also spoke in favor of HB280 and said other than getting a call from state Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Martin once, doing so was the most important three minutes of his career.

“Our children need us,” he said. “This is great legislation.”

Corpening commended the school-justice partnership provision in the bill and gave some insight to the success a program in his county has enjoyed.

“Keeping kids in school, out of court and off the street is a good thing,” he added.

Some community members also spoke, a few who had previously worked in the judicial system, though there wasn’t time for comments from everyone who showed up. Numerous organizations were at the meeting to show support for HB280, including the ACLU of North Carolina, the Conference of DAs, Conference of Clerks, Southern Coalition for Social Justice, NC Child and Disability Rights NC.

Rep. Allen McNeill (R-Moore, Randolph) had some concerns with the bill but introduced an amendment that would address gang activity among youth in the juvenile system. It passed in a voice vote, with only Democratic Leader Darren Jackson voting against it.

Rep. Sarah Stevens (R-Surry, Wilkes) briefly presented a slippery-slope argument.

“The same brain science that we argue about that these children’s brains are not fully developed says they’re not fully developed until they’re 25, so do we work on extending this through college?” she asked.

She also had concerns about the bill including low-level felonies and whether the juvenile system was prepared to take in “all those elements of crime.”

Rep. Marcia Morey (D-Durham), who is a former judge from Durham County and helped pilot a misdemeanor diversion program, explained that not all felonies are the same. She said HB280 still gives district attorneys and judges discretion to transfer juveniles to adult court.

“I hear your concern, and I think one important thing to say is, a felony is not a felony is not a felony,” Morey said. “A felony can also be going into Walmart, getting a T-shirt and snipping the inventory tag.”

Stevens wondered if the discretion among judges to transfer cases would create inconsistency in the state, and Morey said they all follow the same set of guidelines in the law to transfer cases.

“The statute is very clear,” she said.

Rep. David Rogers (R-Burke, Rutherford) expressed concern about resources and confusion over juvenile charges, though he said he ultimately supported raising the age of juvenile jurisdiction.

Rep. Bob Steinburg (R-Camden, Chowan, Currituck, Pasquotank, Perquimans, Tyrrell) spoke in favor of the bill and urged his colleagues to pass it.

“These kids, we really do need to give them every opportunity to become to reach their full capabilities,” he said. “With the laws we have now, we might as well hand them their death certificate, many of them, because their life is over in terms of the life that we know.”

He added that he knew of a number of people in the legislative body who did not grow up in North Carolina because if they had, things would be different.

“Had they lived in North Carolina, they wouldn’t be serving in the General Assembly today; they wouldn’t be members of this staff, and the reason for that is that they had a second chance,” he said. “We should do no less for our kids in North Carolina. Let’s give them that same chance.”

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