Written by GARY D. ROBERTSON
The minimum age at which a child could be sued in North Carolina juvenile courts would be raised from 6 to 8 in legislation approved by the House on Wednesday.
The age threshold change, contained in a broader juvenile justice bill widely recommended by an advisory committee and overwhelmingly approved by the House, would remove North Carolina as the state with age the lowest for the trial of minors set by law in the country.
There have been attempts this year to raise the minimum age to 10 years. But several lawmakers feared that 8- or 9-year-old children accused of the most violent or serious crimes could receive up to nine months of counseling for their crimes.
“We can have jurisdiction over them longer in juvenile court,” said Rep. Sarah Stevens, a Republican from Surry County. She mentioned cases involving 9-year-old children who have been charged with assault, forced rape and arson. “We have to ask them for help and until we can (change) the system otherwise, we have to make sure that they remain under the jurisdiction of our courts.”
The updated measure also states that children aged 8 or 9 who had previously been declared delinquent would also return to court if they committed a felony, misdemeanor or offense.
Representative Marcia Morey, a Democrat from County Durham and a former district court judge who heard juvenile cases, had tabled her own bill that would raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction to 10.
She unsuccessfully proposed a floor amendment that would have lowered the minimum age to 10, saying this is what experts on the advisory group recommended and groups across the political spectrum support. Many of the panel members are nominated by legislative leaders.
Morey said third and fourth graders don’t understand court proceedings. Young people would also receive other assessments, social services and other supports.
“They are impulsive. Their intelligence is not fully informed, ”Morey said during debate on his amendment which was rejected by 42-57. “Don’t start them off with a history of delinquency.”
Billy Lassiter, assistant secretary for juvenile justice in the Department of Public Safety, told House committee members on Wednesday that the new language had been worked out with the North Carolina District Attorney’s Conference.
If the updated bill had already passed, Lassiter said, only 21 of the approximately 1,150 young people under the age of 10 who faced juvenile complaints in the three fiscal years 2016 to 2019 would still have is the subject of a complaint. And all but five of these young people would have been taken out of the system.
“We can live with it because I think it saves a lot more kids,” Lassiter said. “We met in the middle. It’s a compromise and I think it’s a good deal for us to move forward.
The entire bill, approved by a 101-1 vote, is now returning to the Senate for consideration.
The 6-year-old minimum delinquency jurisdiction began in 1979 at a time when severe delinquency legislation was commonplace.
Twenty-eight states and Washington, DC, do not have an age specification, according to a Department of Public Safety report in March. Connecticut, Maryland and New York set the minimum age at 7.
Young people tried in North Carolina juvenile court can be given probation, or when at least 10 can be sent to a youth development center.