Yesterday, in the state House, lawmakers passed a bill that would allow 16 and 17-year-olds charged with misdemeanors to be referred to the juvenile justice system, rather than trying them as adults. The measure has been a long time coming.
The so-called “Raise the Age” bill passed 77 to 39 with broad bipartisan support. Republican representative Marilyn Avila of Wake County is the bill’s main sponsor.
"Yesterday was as surprising to me in terms of the number of people as anything else. This has been a slow, gradual education process for legislators because it’s such a complicated issue," says Avila.
Avila herself started working on the issue back in 2007, when she first arrived at the General Assembly. She says as a mother of two, she was struck by how a misdemeanor could stay with a teenager:
"Any time a child goes in the future for anything like a job- that ask if you’ve ever been convicted. If they go for military they look at things like that- education- a lot of scholarships, all that sort of thing, and you’ve got some ridiculous misdemeanor, they have tremendous problems the rest of their life."
Diverting youthful offenders charged with misdemeanors to juvenile court would allow 16 and 17-year-olds to avoid having a permanent criminal record. Juvenile courts also typically involve family members as part of a restorative and educational process for teenagers.
But not everyone in the House voted for the bill last night.
Republican Representative Paul Stam of Apex objected to it.
"What this bill does is put us on automatic pilot, so when this is in full effect, it will cost us 63 million dollars a year, you’re committing that we’ll spend that much every year," says Stam.
It is more expensive to process teenagers as juveniles, though child advocates say in the long term juvenile justice programs save money by reducing recidivism. Stam also pointed out that teenagers- or their parents- can pay attorneys to have their records expunged.
And many other groups in North Carolina oppose the measure, says Republican Allen McNeill of Asheboro:
"The North Carolina Sheriff’s Association which represents all 100 sheriffs oppose this bill, the conference of District Attorneys oppose this bill, the police chiefs oppose this bill, and I would certainly hope that would be enough."
Those powerful groups have lobbied against the measure for years. So why did it finally pass one chamber this year? Rob Thompson is with NC Child, a public policy non-profit that has worked hard to help get this measure passed in the House.
"We just had a great bipartisan coalition. So you had folks on both sides of the aisle speaking in favor of this, voting in favor of this, you had the support of conservative groups, like the John Locke Foundation, the North Carolina Faith and Freedom Coalition, and more progressive groups all coming together to support this effort," said Thompson.
But now the “Raise the Age” bill is headed for the Senate. It’s not clear whether leaders there plan to take it up during this year’s short session. Thompson says he hopes they do. Forty-eight other states have already raised the age of juvenile jurisdiction for 17 and 18-year-olds. New York and North Carolina are the only states left that haven’t.