Marcia Morey, a Durham Democrat, has been a General Assembly member for almost two and a half months, but she came to the lawmaking job as someone who had spent nearly two decades on the Durham District Court bench deciding the meaning of laws and how to apply them to real-life situations.
From that perch, Morey saw many young offenders.
One case, that of a teenage girl accused of littering on the American Tobacco Trail, haunts her today. The girl was 16 at the time. An officer saw her toss a plastic bottle onto the public path and issued a citation. When the girl failed to show up for a court hearing, police went to arrest her. They found her at school.
For more than 20 years, Morey has been fighting for reform that would send teens younger than 18, such as the girl from the American Tobacco Trail, into the juvenile justice system rather than adult court.
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On Monday, after many years of lobbying, arm-twisting and numerous criminal justice studies, North Carolina lawmakers agreed that teens ages 16 and 17 no longer will be automatically charged as adults for all crimes. The reform is included in a compromise budget that leaders from both General Assembly chambers rolled out for public view Monday.
The changes take effect in December 2019, and apply to 16- and 17-year-olds accused of misdemeanors and low-level felonies such as larcenies, break-ins and other non-violent crimes.
The spending plan also sets aside $13.2 million for a new youth development center in Rockingham County, home of Phil Berger, the president of the state Senate.
Morey said Tuesday she was “thrilled” that North Carolina no longer will be the only state in the country that automatically prosecutes 16-year-olds as adults.
“Everyone sees it as an economic benefit,” Morey said, highlighting the expenses saved by keeping young offenders out of adult prisons and on education paths that can lead to gainful employment. “Some of us also think it’s morally right.”
Chief Justice Mark Martin has advocated for the changes. A commission tapped by Martin, shortly after he became chief justice, recommended raising the age.
Reform advocates have said that North Carolina 16- and 17-year-olds accused of crimes were put at a disadvantage to their peers in other states where their encounters with the criminal justice system were not public. In the juvenile system, offenders’ names and contacts with the criminal justice system can be shielded from the public.
That doesn’t mean the most violent teens cannot be moved into the adult system. As it is now, suspects as young as 13 charged with particularly violent crimes still can be tried as adults. There were no calls to change that.
Juvenile justice advocates have tried for years to get North Carolina to raise the age at which teens can be prosecuted as adults, arguing that the teenage brain is not fully developed. Through the juvenile justice system, judges can establish legal tethers that link the young offenders to a team of psychologists, substance abuse counselors, family members, guardians and others invested in helping them turn their lives around.
Many say the juvenile system can be tougher on young offenders than if they were prosecuted as an adult – forcing them to pay restitution to victims and keeping tabs on their progress in a way the adult system cannot.
Studies show that children in the juvenile system are less likely to return to jail.
The ACLU praised the bipartisan vote behind what it called a commonsense measure.
“North Carolina’s century-old policy of sending 16- and 17-year-olds to adult jails and branding them with lifelong criminal records has been a blight on our state and done nothing to make our communities safer,” Susanna Birdsong, a lawyer with the organization, said in a statement. “It is long past time for young offenders in North Carolina to have the same opportunities as those in the rest of the country to turn their lives around through the juvenile justice system.”