NC House approves raising minimum age for prosecution in juvenile court to 8

Published 8:09 am Friday, August 20, 2021

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By Gary D. Robertson, Associated Press

The minimum age in which a child could be prosecuted in North Carolina’s juvenile courts would rise from 6 to 8 in legislation approved by the House on Wednesday.

The age threshold change, contained in a broader juvenile justice bill largely recommended by an advisory panel and approved overwhelmingly by the House, would remove North Carolina as the state with the lowest age for juvenile adjudication set by law in the country.

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There have been attempts this year to raise the minimum age to 10. But several lawmakers were concerned that 8- or 9-year-olds accused of the most violent or serious felonies could only receive up to nine months of counseling for their crimes.

“We can keep jurisdiction over them longer in juvenile court,” said Rep. Sarah Stevens, a Surry County Republican. She mentioned cases involving children as old as 9 who were accused of assault, forcible rape and arson. “We need to get them help and until we can otherwise (change) the system we need to ensure that they stay under our courts’ jurisdiction.”

The updated measure also states that 8- or 9-year-olds who had been previously declared delinquent would also return to court if they commit any felony, misdemeanor or infraction.

Rep. Marcia Morey, a Durham County Democrat and former District Court judge who heard juvenile cases, had filed her own bill that would raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction to 10.

She unsuccessfully proposed a floor amendment that would have brought the minimum age to 10, saying it’s what experts on the advisory panel recommended and groups across the political spectrum support. Many panel members are appointed by legislative leaders.

Morey said third- and fourth-graders don’t understand court proceedings. The youths also would receive other assessments, social services and other assistance.

“They are impulsive. Their intellect is not fully informed,” Morey said while debating her amendment that was defeated in a 42-57 vote. “Do not start them off with a delinquency history.”

Billy Lassiter, deputy secretary for juvenile justice within the Department of Public Safety, told House committee members earlier Wednesday the new language was worked on with the North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys.

If the updated bill had already been law, Lassiter said, only 21 of the nearly 1,150 youths under 10 who were subjects of juvenile complaints during the three fiscal years from 2016 to 2019 still would have been subject to a complaint. And all but five of those youths would have been taken out of the system.

“We can live with this because I think it saves so many more kids,” Lassiter said. “We met in the middle. This is a compromise and I think it’s a good deal for us to move forward with.”

The full bill, approved by a vote of 101-1, now returns to the Senate for consideration.

The 6-year-old minimum of delinquency jurisdiction began in 1979 during a period when tough-on-crime legislation was common.

Twenty-eight states and Washington D.C. have no age specification, according to a Department of Public Safety report in March. Connecticut, Maryland and New York set the minimum age at 7.

Youths adjudicated in North Carolina juvenile court can receive probation or, when at least 10, can be sent to a youth development center.



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