Last month, North Carolina distinguished itself by being the last state in the country to prosecute all sixteen-and-seventeen-year-olds as adults, after New York nixed a similar restriction. Now, it seems the state could actually be on track to rid itself of that dubious honor.
This afternoon, the House voted 104–8 to approve a bill that could effectively divert most teenagers from the adult court system. HB 280 would raise the age of juvenile prosecution in the state so that sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds would no longer be tried as adults. That practice, juvenile justice advocates have long argued, is costly and ineffective and actually increases the likelihood that youthful offenders will wind up back in the criminal justice system.
In a rare moment of bipartisanship, HB 280 has a range of unlikely supporters, including Republican U.S. Senator Thom Tillis, Democratic Governor Roy Cooper, the ACLU, and the conservative John Locke Foundation. It was sponsored by three Republicans and one Democrat, Duane Hall of Raleigh. Although similar legislation has passed the House before, this year’s bill has the support of the N.C. Sheriffs’ Association and the N.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Martin.
The bill is headed to the Senate next.
According to estimates from House Speaker Tim Moore’s office, the bill would cost around $25 million the upcoming year and could increase to $44 million by 2020.
But supporters say the cost is worth it. Indeed, a growing body of research has documented the harmful impacts of locking up young people with adults. It’s estimated that close to 80 percent of young adults released from adult prisons will reoffend later in their lives or go on to commit even more serious crimes, ultimately diverting them back into the criminal justice system. And it’s not just recidivism that’s an issue. When young people are housed in adult jails and prisons, they’re vulnerable to abuse and psychological despair. The risk of sexual assault is five times higher in adult jails and prisons than it is in juvenile facilities, and young people in adult prisons are thirty-six times more likely to kill themselves than those placed in juvenile centers.
As of last month, North Carolina was one of just two states in the country (along with New York) to prosecute all sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds as adults. But in April, New York governor Andrew Cuomo signed into law a Raise the Age measure that would direct most criminal cases involving sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds to juvenile court, rather than the adult criminal justice system.
As Hall previously told the INDY, “To say that we are the last state to still treat our children like adults is not something to be proud of.”