WASHINGTON — More than five years of lobbying, arm twisting and a fair dose of shaming finally paid off. North Carolina voted Monday to end its status as the only state in the country that still automatically charges 16-year-olds as adults, no matter the crime.
The state legislature added the sweeping juvenile justice reform to a vote on the final state budget, rather than as a standalone bill. In the end it didn’t matter because supporters got virtually everything they were hoping for, and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle joined forces to make the changes.
“This is long overdue, but this is good for the state and especially good for our youth who deserve a fair chance in life,” said North Carolina Rep. Duane Hall, a Democrat, who led unsuccessful efforts to raise the age in 2013 and 2015. “As someone who has defended these kids in the courtroom, I know how important this bill is for their future, and for our state.”
No one is going to benefit from the new law for quite some time, as the changes won’t go into effect until 2019. That gives the state time to prepare for what some skeptics of the legislation expect to be an influx of new juvenile cases, and for the state to build a new juvenile detention facility.
Hall and other supporters have spent years trying to increase the age, without much success. But this year was different because of two new factors, one external, one internal.
First, New York voted to overhaul its juvenile justice system in April, raising the age of adult responsibility for crimes to 18. That left North Carolina as the only state still automatically charging 16-year-olds in adult court. That created a sense of urgency, according to supporters.
More importantly, Mark Martin, chief justice of North Carolina’s Supreme Court, pushed hard for passage of the bill.
"Now, I hate to be the bearer of bad news," Martin said during a May press conference, according to Politifact. "But North Carolina now stands alone.”
Hall, in an April interview with JJIE after the New York vote, called North Carolina’s status “another dubious list for us to be last on.”
The crux of the argument by Martin, Hall and others focused on the data showing that only 3 percent of the crimes that result in convictions for 16- and 17-year-olds in North Carolina would have even made it to adult court in other states.
The final vote gave supporters of the measure most of what they wanted, but not all. Under the final version of the bill, all misdemeanors and many felonies will be sent automatically to juvenile court. But Class G felonies are still heading to state court, the only aspect of Hall’s original bill that was not passed.
Under North Carolina law, Class G felonies include arson, burglary, possession of a firearm by a felon and some drug sales crimes, according to summaries of North Carolina statutes.
The passage received nearly universal support, and was noticeable for the bipartisan work of the state legislature. Hall said Republican Rep. Chuck McGrady was instrumental in getting the raise the age bill linked to the final budget, and said both parties worked closely throughout.
The bill was also strongly supported by the state’s chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
“We applaud legislators on both sides of the aisle for uniting behind this commonsense effort to do what’s right for the safety and future of North Carolina’s young people,” ACLU counsel Susanna Birdsong said in a press release Monday afternoon. “North Carolina’s century-old policy of sending 16- and 17-year-olds to adult jails and branding them with lifelong criminal records has been a blight on our state and done nothing to make our communities safer.”
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