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Bill raising juvenile prosecution age in North Carolina gets final approval

By Gary D. Robertson, Associated Press

The North Carolina legislature agreed on Tuesday that only children 8 and older can be prosecuted in the state’s juvenile courts — up from the current age of 6.

The bill, which the Senate approved unanimously after the House made significant changes last week, would end North Carolina as having the lowest age for juvenile adjudication set by law in the country.

The measure now goes to Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, who must decide whether to sign the bill, veto it or let it become law without his signature. The House also approved the measure by an overwhelming margin.

Bills debated and voted on earlier this year would have raised the minimum age to 10, in keeping with the recommendation of an expert advisory panel that examines juvenile justice issues.

But the target age was adjusted after some House members and prosecutors were concerned the intervention that otherwise would be provided to children who commit serious, violent crimes but are deemed too young to be brought into court wasn’t enough.

Instead, 8- and 9-year-olds who commit the most severe felonies would still have their cases adjudicated in juvenile court before a judge, who could require more intensive treatment and even probation. They “need a little bit more services that can be better provided through juvenile delinquency court than what can be provided otherwise,” said Sen. Danny Britt, a Robeson County Republican and bill sponsor.

Repeat offenders of any crime or infraction at this age also would automatically be treated as delinquent. Other 8- and 9-year-olds who commit largely nonviolent felonies and any misdemeanor would avoid court but could receive as much as nine months of counseling.

Legislators who backed raising the age of delinquency to 10 say younger children lack the intellectual capacity to understand the juvenile court proceedings and assist in their defense. Advocates for a higher age tell stories of young kids drawing in coloring books in a courtroom awaiting adjudication.

More than 2,100 complaints were filed against nearly 1,150 youth under 10 during the three fiscal years from 2016 to 2019, according to the state Department of Public Safety. Ultimately 54 who went before a judge were found responsible for the actions in those complaints.

The final proposal, however, may have nearly the same numerical outcome as an outright under-10 ban.

An official in the department, which is a Cabinet agency led by Cooper, told House members last week that only a handful of the youths in that three-year stretch would have remained in the system if the proposal was law at that time.

The 6-year-old minimum of delinquency jurisdiction began in 1979 in North Carolina. 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.

The bill includes other recommendations from the advisory panel in light of other recent changes to the juvenile justice system. A law took effect in 2019 that declared 16- and 17-year-olds would no longer be automatically tried in adult court for most nonviolent or less serious felonies.

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