North Carolina is one of three states being carefully watched by national supporters of raise the age. A similar measure in Missouri has died, while one in Texas is apparently teetering on the edge of failure.
Supporters of raising the age of criminal responsibility in North Carolina are optimistic as legislation heads to the Senate after a 104-8 approval vote in the General Assembly.
The overwhelming vote Wednesday is a major step in the last state that still automatically charges 16-year-olds as adults, no matter the crime.
The bill calls for youth to be charged as juveniles until they reach 18, although there are provisions allowing prosecutors and victims to ask a judge to refer the most serious cases to adult court.
“We were expecting it would pass, but I never expected nearly that many votes,” said Rep. Duane Hall, a Democrat, who has introduced similar measures in previous years, only to see them fall short. “This gives us great bargaining power when it goes to the Senate, and it also shows just how much support is out there in each district.”
If the Senate passes the bill without making any changes, it will become law. If changes are made, the two houses would have to reconcile their bills and then each would need a final vote. The Senate vote is expected next week.
The measure has broad support from both conservative and liberal groups and was boosted by the strong support of state Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Martin.
While North Carolina supporters are buoyed by the vote, a similar measure in Missouri has failed and is stalemated in Texas.
They are two of only six states that automatically charge 17-year-olds in adult court.
The Texas House of Representatives did pass a raise the age bill in April. Lawmakers said it also had broad, bipartisan support in the Senate. But state Sen. John Whitmire, the Democratic chair of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, opposed the measure and refused to let it come to a vote.
Whitmire did not return several phone calls seeking comment.
Texas Rep. Gene Wu, a Democratic sponsor of the bill, has been pushing for a vote, but an aide said earlier this week that it won’t happen this year. Texas’ legislature won’t meet again until 2019. Some Texas media have also reported on the bill’s apparent demise.
Today, Wu said his aide misspoke and that the fight is not over. If Whitmire’s panel does not act by Wednesday, the measure dies without a vote.
“The Senate’s position on this bill is simply bizarre. The House has had a plan to make it work for several sessions now and has done interim study after interim study that says Texas should change the age to 18,” Wu said.
“We have watched state after state implement this very law with no problems while the Texas Senate has stalled. There still time to save raise the age, but the Senate needs to act now.”
In Missouri, the measure never came close to passing before the legislative session ended Friday. Democrats and Republicans supported the bill, but the state has seen an unprecedented number of filibusters and infighting this year, supporters said.
“It’s been the most difficult year I’ve seen; we never got any energy to move the bill,” said Bill Foster, chief of staff for the bill’s sponsor, Republican Sen. Wayne Wallingford. “It had a really high fiscal note, and that really hurt, of course. The note was higher than it should be, because we’ve seen in other states that the costs don’t go up.
“We still have people who want to put kids into adult courts, and that’s just a bad idea,” Foster said. “We’ll keep trying to get this passed next year.”
This story has been updated.
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