Inside the Courts

Will North Carolina ever raise its legal age to 18?

For years, North Carolina and New York court systems have been the last in America to set the mantle of adulthood at age 16.
For years, North Carolina and New York court systems have been the last in America to set the mantle of adulthood at age 16. The Charlotte Observer

When it comes to the legal age of adulthood in criminal court, North Carolina shares New York values.

For years, the two state court systems have been the last in America to set the mantle of adulthood at age 16. Seven states up it a year to 17. The rest, plus Washington, D.C, set the bar at 18, meaning that 16- and 17-year-olds are more likely to wind up under the more protective auspices of juvenile court.

New York courts, though, also have a provision that makes it easier for defendants to petition for juvenile status. That leaves North Carolina as the last holdout, standing by a numeric definition of adulthood it adopted a century ago and has repeatedly refused to change.

Now, an interim report from a committee put together by North Carolina Chief Justice Mark Martin apparently wants to change that. It argues that the change would save money, cut crime and salvage a life of something other than crime for youthful offenders.

“The facts support raising the age,” says Duke law professor Jim Coleman, a Charlotte native and a member of the Juvenile Age subcommittee of Martin’s group. “Every state that has done so recently had uniformly positive results. This simple act can be the difference between a kid who turns around his life after a juvenile mistake and one who is put on a treadmill to failure and criminality before he has an opportunity to mature.”

In North Carolina, only 3.3 percent of the 16- and 17-year-old defendants charged in 2014 were convicted of violent felonies. More than 80 percent were found guilty of misdemeanors. Given those numbers, keeping youthful offenders out of adult prisons and more hardened inmates only makes sense, the report says. Statewide data also shows a 7.5 percent drop in recidivism when teens channel through the juvenile courts, rather than the adult ones.

There are also financial advantages, the subcommittee says. A 2011 report estimated the overall benefits to the state of raising the age to 18 at $52 million. In Connecticut, the change led to a drop in crime and the closing of an adult prison.

So what’s the holdup?

Politics for one, says Rick Glazier, executive director of the North Carolina Justice Center and a former longtime legislator. Law enforcement groups traditionally have opposed raising the legal age, he says, and neither side of the legislative aisle likes appearing appear weak on crime. Now, he says, police and prosecutors are supporting the change.

Still, retiring Rep. Paul Stam of Cary thinks the change would make criminal backgrounds too easy to hide. Juvenile court records are sealed. Supporters of the change think that’s a good thing because it gives a youthful offender the chance of making something of their lives, without a crime tied to their name.

But Stam says the subcommittee has overlooked every employer or teacher or potential spouse “who might need a little warning that they are dealing with a criminal, and a fairly recent criminal at that.”

Mecklenburg District Attorney Andrew Murray, a member of Martin’s subcommittee, believes raising the legal age would require millions of dollars to expand the juvenile system, a cost that won’t be covered by lower crime rates and a related drop in demand for adult facilities. He wants assurance prosecutors won’t be stuck with the bill.

He also wants DAs to have discretion on trying 16- and 17-year-olds or even younger defendants as adults – if their crimes demand it. As of now, the draft report recommends that offenders ages 16-17 accused of more serious felonies automatically be assigned to adult court.

Glazier, while aware of the hurdles, is optimistic they can be crossed. After all, he says, “Forty-nine other states have managed to figure it out.”