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North Carolina House advances bill to keep youngest kids out of court

By Bryan Anderson, Associated Press/Report for America

North Carolina House members advanced a bill Wednesday that would prevent kids under 10 in trouble with the law from having to go before a judge and participate in juvenile justice proceedings.

House Bill 261 unanimously cleared the House Families, Children and Aging Policy Committee less than a week after a Senate bill addressing the same issue was unanimously approved by that chamber.

The bipartisan proposals would raise the minimum age of delinquent and undisciplined juveniles from 6 to 10. Rep. Marcia Morey, a Durham County Democrat and a primary sponsor of the House bill, is a former District Court judge. She said she recalls seeing young children in her courtroom holding coloring books so they would sit still.

“They are too young to be able to effectively assist their attorneys in their own defense,” Morey said during the hearing.

Ashley Perkinson, a lobbyist representing the NC Child advocacy group, attended the committee hearing Wednesday to support the proposal.

“Everything we know about brain development tells us that often they’re not capable to stand trial,” Perkinson said. “Young children will act in ways that break the law are often doing so because they’re in traumatic experiences. Bringing them into the juvenile justice system merely furthers that trauma.”

Morey said there were 1,174 juveniles under 10 who were petitioned to court from 2016 to 2019. Of those, 71% of complaints were for school offenses.

The House proposal would have younger kids pivot from court proceedings to a child consultation process. Families that don’t ensure their children receive needed treatment and services would be referred to their local social services department.

The bill must clear two additional committees before reaching the House floor. Any final legislation likely could require House and Senate negotiations.

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