"Raise the Age" new law affects young offenders

GREENVILLE, NC (WITN) - North Carolina's "Raise the Age" juvenile initiative has gone into effect. It brings significant changes for young offenders and amends state laws.

Depending on the crime, the initiative means 16 and 17-year-olds will no longer be automatically tried in adult court. North Carolina was one of two states in the country where 16 and 17-year-old teen offenders were automatically prosecuted as adults.

Defense Lawyer Keith Williams has been preparing for the adjustments. He says for the last 100 years, North Carolina has treated 16 and 17-year-olds as adults in criminal court.

Advocates say "Raise the Age" could allow young people to avoid extensive criminal records. Williams says adult cases are private, but not sealed.

"A person 15 or younger went to juvenile court, which has the advantage of protecting their record," said Williams

The teenagers will no longer be automatically tried in adult court for most nonviolent or less serious felonies specifically.

Williams said, "You determine serious or non-serious based on the classification of the felony. So, if the juvenile is charged with the felony Class A, B, C, D, all the way down to G, that's deemed a serious felony in which the judge can then transfer the person to regular adult court. In fact, that transfer would be mandatory if the judge finds probable cause to support the charge."

Those cases will start in juvenile court, but the judge can transfer the cases to adult court. That would include crimes like murder, robbery, rape, and so on. However, misdemeanors may not be transferred to adult court. For less serious felonies, which Williams says are H and I, the judge has the discretion to keep those cases in juvenile court.

Williams says also if the defense can reach an agreement with the prosecutor, the case can be transferred back to juvenile court. The juvenile court system is also designed to meet the juvenile's needs, such as determining the cause behind their actions.

There are some complications. For example, if a minor is charged with two crimes at once, one case may go to adult court, and the other to juvenile court.

Psychology professionals also argue that a juvenile's developmental stage would be arguably why they should be tried in juvenile court.

Christy Walcott, a Psychology professor at East Carolina University, said, "The main psychological point is that youth are still developing in mind, body, and personality, so they are developmentally different than adults, and their life trajectories are more malleable. Youth in trouble with the law are also significantly likely to have experienced traumatic events in childhood and to have mental health or substance use issues that require treatment. Those in both juvenile and adult facilities often are exposed to stress, trauma, and serious harm, but they may be better monitored/regulated in a juvenile facility. Plus, the focus in juvenile justice is on rehabilitation, not just punishment."

Lenoir County Sheriff Ronnie Ingram says the amendments have some benefits, such as keeping the teens out of the adult system. It also gives youth a second chance.

"Hopefully it'll give them an opportunity to, if they're not on the right track, to have the extra time to make the best of it, then get on the right track," Ingram said.

Both the court system and law enforcement agencies are expecting an influx of juvenile cases. Pitt County has already approved a new district court judge position to combat the influx.