Raleigh, North Carolina –North Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Martin urged legislators Monday not to let North Carolina become the only remaining state that automatically tries 16- and 17-year-olds in criminal court, but to pass legislation aligned with a recommendation of a commission he organized.
Passing “raise the age” legislation would do away with the lasting stigma of a public criminal record for those who commit nonviolent teenage misdeeds, North Carolina’s top judge said at a Legislative Building news conference.
Convictions can make it harder for young people to get financial aid for college, join the armed forces or get a job.
“Normally, these charges are handled very quickly,” Martin said, “so the child, the parents, they think it’s behind them, only to learn five or six years later that it had a very, very serious effect on their ability to participate in the local marketplace.”
North Carolina will soon be the only state in the country that automatically prosecutes teens as adults since New York legislators agreed in April to a two-year phase out of the practice.
The legislation backed by Martin and a diverse coalition of politicians and law enforcement groups would shift the cases for teens accused of misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies to the juvenile court system, where records are confidential. The change would take effect in 2019.
Such cases comprised nearly 97 percent of convictions among offenders in that age range in 2014, according to data from the state’s judicial branch. Juvenile cases could still be transferred to adult court if a judge decides.
Resolving these cases in the juvenile court system, where programs are available and parental involvement is required, would help increase chances for rehabilitation and lower the risk of recidivism, according to a co-leader of Martin’s commission for law and justice reforms.
“This is a law and order” measure, retired U.S. Magistrate Judge Bill Webb said at the news conference.
Similar “raise the age” efforts have failed in recent years, but the commission has helped bring consensus. Momentum picked up during the panel’s work as the North Carolina Sheriffs Association decided to back the idea. Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper supports the legislation.
The bill sits in a House judiciary committee. Tom Murry, a former state House member and current lobbyist for the state courts system, said he anticipates the bill will begin to advance soon in the House, which passed a scaled-down version in 2014. Murry also was optimistic about Senate support, where “raise the age” bills also have been filed.
Specifics on costs to implement the House measure, which includes other juvenile justice changes, remain unclear. A primary sponsor of the House bill estimated in March that hundreds of millions of dollars may be needed over a period of up to five years, including funds to build a fifth youth development center to house young offenders.
It’s rare for a sitting chief justice to hold a news conference at the General Assembly. Martin, a registered Republican, said his appearance reflects his commitment to seeing the idea become law. He called it “our No. 1 priority.”
Martin pointed out that 11 counties have local diversion programs that enable teens to avoid criminal records if they get help to turn their lives around. That means youth in 89 counties lack such an option. The legislation can help young people in all 100 counties.
“We could call that unequal justice, and that’s one of the gravest forms of injustice,” he said.