Adult Court for Teen Offenders? NC Governor Rejects Controversial Bill

Image by: The Virginian-Pilot

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper rejected a bill Friday that would have required more young people accused of serious crimes to be tried in adult court, rather than remaining in juvenile court.

The bill, which just passed the House and Senate with strong bipartisan support, would amend recent juvenile justice changes affecting 16- and 17-year-old defendants. The Democratic governor agreed with the law’s detractors, who cautioned that the modifications were rolling back the “Raise the Age” provisions, which went into force in late 2019 and abolished a rule that children of these ages be tried in adult criminal courts.

The elimination of automatic prosecution in adult court was viewed as a method to assist more young people in avoiding public, lifetime criminal records for one-time mistakes while also providing them with access to youth-centered supports within the juvenile system, where records are not made public.

While senators tried to improve the vetoed legislation over the original measure, Cooper stated in his veto statement, “I remain concerned that this new law would prevent some children from receiving the treatment they require while making communities less safe.” The bill’s chief advocate in the General Assembly stated that the changes were intended to reflect the reality that these young people charged with high-level felonies would eventually end up in adult court and that legal actions to transfer them from juvenile to adult court were clogging up prosecutors’ juvenile caseloads.

“From a practical standpoint, this process improves efficiency in our courts,” Republican Sen. Danny Britt of Robeson County, the bill’s sponsor, said in a text message late Friday. Britt stated that he supported the “Raise the Age” legislation and still believes it was the appropriate decision.

The bill now goes back to the General Assembly for a possible veto override. Eighteen House and Senate Democrats voted in favor of the bill, with all Republicans present save one. Republicans already have thin veto-proof majorities in the General Assembly, and they overrode all 19 of Cooper’s vetoes last year. Another Cooper veto from earlier this year has not been acted on. According to juvenile justice law, cases involving 16- and 17-year-olds suspected of the most serious felonies must be transferred to adult court if a notice of indictment is issued, or after a hearing establishes there is probable cause to believe a crime occurred. Prosecutors have the option of not prosecuting these adolescents for certain lower-level felonies in adult courts.

The proposed language would have eliminated the transfer process for the majority of these high-level offenses, instead placing these kids’ cases in adult court immediately.

When “Raise the Age” was established, North Carolina was the last state to automatically prosecute 16 and 17-year-olds as adults. These teenagers are still being tried in adult court for motor vehicle-related offenses.

“Most violent crimes, including those perpetrated by juveniles, should be addressed in adult court. However, in other situations, punishments for minors might be more effective and commensurate to the nature of the offense if handled in juvenile court, making communities safer,” Cooper’s letter stated. “This bill makes this important option highly unlikely.”

The measure would also have established a new procedure for transferring a case from Superior Court to juvenile court, with the adult records removed if the prosecution and defendant’s attorney agreed to do so.

Children aged 13 to 15 who are charged of first-degree murder must still be automatically moved to adult court if an indictment or hearing determines probable cause.

The law would also have increased punishments for adults who solicit a minor to commit a crime. Britt said Friday that the clause aims to punish gangs accountable for enticing youth to commit violent crimes.


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