More youths accused of serious crimes in North Carolina would be automatically tried in adult court in legislation that advanced through the state Senate on Wednesday.

The measure approved 41-4 reworks some of the bipartisan juvenile justice reforms approved by the General Assembly that ended in late 2019 the mandate that 16- and 17-year-olds be tried in the adult criminal justice system.

The bill’s chief proponent says the changes will ease backed-up juvenile court caseloads for prosecutors by putting matters that ultimately will end up in adult Superior Court immediately there instead.

The “Raise the Age” law was designed to reduce recidivism through the services offered to youths in the juvenile system and help young people avoid having lifetime criminal records if tried in adult courts. Juvenile records are confidential.

The current law says that 16- and 17-year-olds accused of the most serious felonies, from murder and rape to violent assaults and burglary, must be transferred to Superior Court after the notice of an indictment being handed up or when a hearing determines there is probable cause a crime was committed. Prosecutors have discretion in keeping cases for some of the lower-grade felonies in juvenile court.

The measure now heading to the House would do away with the transfer requirement for most of these high-grade felonies — usually the most violent — by trying these young people in adult court to begin with.

Sen. Danny Britt, a Robeson County Republican, said the provision addresses a “convoluted” transfer process for juvenile defendants, the bulk of whom are winding up in adult court anyway.

“Like any law that we pass in this body, there are some kind of boots-on-ground impacts that we need to look at,” Britt, a defense attorney and former prosecutor, said in a committee earlier Wednesday. “And if we see that things are not going as smoothly as what we want them to go in the judicial system, and there are ways to make things go smoother … we need to adjust what we’ve done.”

The bill also would create a new process whereby a case can be removed from Superior Court to juvenile court — with the adult records deleted — if the prosecutor and the defendant’s attorney agree to do so.

Advocates for civil rights and the disabled fear legislators are dismantling the “Raise the Age” changes, which they say help more young people adjudicated in the juvenile system access mental health treatment and other services in youth centers before they return to their communities.

When someone is in adult court, a defendant’s name is public and it’s harder to get the person to cooperate and testify against “more culpable people,” said Liz Barber with the North Carolina chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

“It is going to be a harder lift for those juvenile defense attorneys to convince a prosecutor who already has them in adult court to remand someone down to juvenile court than it is if you have someone in juvenile court and getting them to keep them there,” Barber told the Senate Rules Committee.

Britt rejected the idea that the changes were harming the “Raise the Age” effort.

The juvenile transfer change was sought in part by the North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys, which represents the state’s elected local prosecutors.

North Carolina had been the last state in which 16- and 17-year-olds were automatically prosecuted as adults. These youths are still tried in adult court for motor vehicle-related crimes.

The Senate on Wednesday also approved unanimously and sent to the House a measure portrayed as modernizing sex-related crimes, particularly against minors, in light of new technology like artificial intelligence.

The bill, for example, creates new sexual exploitation of a minor counts that make it a lower-grade felony to possess or distribute obscene sexual material of a child engaging in sexual activity, even if the minor doesn’t actually exist.

And a new sexual extortion crime would address someone who threatens to disclose or who refuses to delete a sex-related “private image” unless cash or something else of value is received.


Featured photo via Kindel Media.