North Carolina “Raise the Age” Takes a Big Step Forward
By Brian Evans, State Campaign Director
On May 17, the North Carolina House of Representatives passed HB 280, legislation that will “Raise the Age” of criminal responsibility from 16 to 18. Once New York raised the age earlier this year, North Carolina became the only state in the country still committed to prosecuting all 16 and 17 year olds as adults, regardless of how minor the offense might be.
Passage of HB 280 into law would change that, and the good news is that the North Carolina Senate has included language for “Raise the Age” in its budget. However, the Senate language raises the age only for children charged with misdemeanors.
Raising the age only for misdemeanor offenses would be a mistake. HB 280, which raises the age for 16 and 17 year olds accused of lower level felonies as well as misdemeanors, is based on the recommendations of an exhaustive study conducted by the North Carolina Commission on the Administration of Law and Justice (NCCALJ) and endorsed by North Carolina’s Chief Justice Mark Martin.
The benefits of being kept out of the adult criminal justice system – better programs and services, protection from being shackled with a debilitating adult criminal record, less risk of being assaulted and abused – should be made available to as many children as possible, and there is no evidence to suggest that children charged with non-violent (or even violent) felonies are any less amenable to rehabilitation than those charged with misdemeanors.
There is, however, evidence that youth transferred to the adult criminal justice system are more likely to commit crimes in the future, so keeping as many children as possible in the juvenile system is also good for public safety.
As a practical matter, limiting “Raise the Age” legislation to misdemeanors would likely cause confusion for law enforcement. In 2010, when Illinois raised the age of criminal responsibility from 17 to 18 for misdemeanors only, police found it difficult to decide what to do with children in their custody, often not knowing for “borderline” crimes whether they would be charged with a misdemeanor or a low level felony. In 2014, Illinois wisely raised the age for most 17 year olds charged with felonies.
For almost 100 years, North Carolina has prosecuted all 16 and 17 year olds as adults, so the passage of HB 280 by the House is extremely welcome news. Now it is up to the state Senate to follow suit, to pass a strong “Raise the Age” bill that minimizes harm and confusion, that respects the recommendations of the state’s Chief Justice, and that benefits as many children as possible.