House lawmakers overwhelmingly passed “Raise the Age” legislation Wednesday afternoon after a little over an hour of debate.
The vote for House Bill 280 was 104 to 8. The Representatives who voted against it are James Boles Jr. (R-Moore), Mark Brody (R-Anson, Union), George Cleveland (R-Onslow), Jeff Collins (R-Franklin, Nash), Jeffrey Elmore (R-Alleghany, Wilkes), Carl Ford (R-Cabarrus, Rowan), Larry Pittman (R-Cabbarus) and Sarah Stevens (R-Surry, Wilkes).
The bill raises the age of juvenile prosecution from 16 and 17 years old to 18 years old for misdemeanors and low-level felonies, or F through I felonies. Juveniles who commit violent felonies or traffic violations would still automatically be transferred to the adult court system.
District attorneys, under HB280, would otherwise be able to petition judges to transfer teens to adult court if necessary.
North Carolina is currently the only state in the nation that punishes 16 and 17 year olds as adults.
The two biggest concerns discussed on the floor were that the bill includes low-level felonies — offenses that include involuntary manslaughter and and assault on an executive, legislative or court officer — and felonies.
“I came to Raleigh to try and protect our citizens and defend their rights; I don’t believe we can do that by going soft on crime,” Pittman told his peers.
He told a story about his stepfather being targeted by a group of teenagers who vandalized an older home that he was fixing up, and how he didn’t believe they were punished harshly enough and how some time after everything, the house was “mysteriously” burned to the ground and nobody was ever charged for that.”
“This case is a good example of what’s wrong with this bill,” Pittman said. “We will be telling the victims of crime that it’s no big deal, just because the perpetrators are under 18. That’s ludicrous.”
New Rep. Marcia Morey (D-Durham), a former District Court judge, said HB280 was by no means soft on crime.
“[Juvenile court] is much more intense, they have to come back month after month; the family is involved, home electronic monitoring can be involved,” Morey explained. “They’re supervised, they get treatment; the recidivism rate in our juvenile system is three times less than if they come in front of me for two minute and I slap a fine and suspended jail time on them.”
She added that the bill is simple.
“It is saying 16 year olds and 17 year olds are still children,” she said. “In almost every other aspect of our laws, if you’re under 18, you’re a minor. You can’t get a contract, you can’t vote, you can’t drink, you can’t get a library card without your parent’s permission.”
Rep. Carla Cunningham (D-Mecklenburg) explained that sometimes when juveniles commit crimes, there are a lot of other things in their life that are out of their control. She gave a heartfelt speech about the time she spent as a “floater child” between homes and schools.
“Most of you in this chamber really don’t know me,” she started. “I wasn’t raised by my father, never met him; I wasn’t raised by my mother. It was a village that raised me. By the time I graduated high school, I had been to 22 schools. I was what you call a floater child, not a foster child. I floated between relatives. By the time I was 13 years old, I had juvenile issues. I don’t want you all to think differently of me than what you do, but I did. I was out of control — numerous reasons, numerous issues, poverty and other issues. But it happens.”
Cunningham said if they were doing what they were supposed to be doing on the preventative side, helping kids, a lot of whom have mental health issues, and helping their families, it would keep kids out of the criminal justice system.
“We all make mistakes, young and old, but there’s one thing that has been scientifically proven: it’s that the brain has not been fully developed until after 21 years old,” she said. “This is a good start.”
Rep. Chuck McGrady, who is carrying the bill as one of the sponsors, tried to quell his colleagues’ concerns about money, promising to work with them as legislation moves forward. He said the juvenile justice system has already cut from its budget over the years.
“Where’s the money going to come from? It’s going to come from the budget,” he said.
After the bill passed, he took to social media to thank the bill co-sponsors and former legislator Marilyn Avila, who has carried past bills.
Raise the age legislation has been in the works for a long time but it hasn’t had the kind of bipartisan support in the past that HB280 has garnered. That’s partially because of a recommendation from N.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice’s Mark Martin’s Courts Commission, which studied the issue and worked to compromise with many stakeholders.
The ACLU of North Carolina commended the House lawmakers for passing the bill.
“Sending kids into the adult criminal justice system puts their safety and future at risk and harms North Carolina’s communities in countless ways,” said Susanna Birdsong, Policy Counsel for the organization. “This bipartisan House vote is a hugely important step toward fixing a long overdue injustice that now exists only in North Carolina. We stand with a broad coalition of North Carolinians in urging the Senate and Governor Cooper to pass this much-needed measure into law and finally do the right thing for North Carolina and its young people.”
The bill will now head to the Senate, where its expected to drum up a similar debate about whether it should include some felonies or only misdemeanors.