6-year-olds might not go to court anymore, but NC lawmakers disagree on new age limit.
North Carolina lawmakers advanced a series of criminal justice changes Wednesday, dealing with everything from the treatment of elementary school children accused of crimes to the state’s ability to track records of police misconduct.
Under current law, children as young as 6 can be brought to court in the juvenile justice system. No other state in the country has such a young age limit, said Rep. Marcia Morey, a Durham Democrat, on Wednesday.
“Let’s have North Carolina in the mainstream of the country, recognizing what child psychiatrists say, what mental health experts say,” she said.
And while both Republicans and Democrats generally agree that at least some change should be made, a lengthy debate erupted during Wednesday’s vote on Senate Bill 207 over whether North Carolina should set the new age limit at 8 or at 10. Less contentious was a different bill, Senate Bill 300 or the Criminal Justice Reform act, that had previously passed the Senate unanimously. It passed nearly unanimously in the House on Wednesday, too.
That is a broadly focused bill that tackles a number of issues, The News & Observer has previously reported, ranging from police body camera footage to creating the first-ever state database of cops accused of abusing people, or lying under oath in court. The House, however, made some changes to the bill after it passed the Senate. House members changed the body cam rules that senators proposed in the wake of the shooting of Andrew Brown Jr. in Elizabeth City, and removed a section of the bill that created stricter criminal penalties for any protesters that the police accuse of rioting.
So the question remains whether the new version of that bill will still have enough support in the Senate, or if the changes the House passed 100-2 Wednesday might set up conflicts with the Senate. Similarly, the bill aimed at stopping police and prosecutors from putting young children on trial passed the Senate unanimously this year, but then underwent some changes in the House before Wednesday’s vote, so it will also have to go back to the Senate for a final decision.
The main backers Wednesday of moving the juvenile justice age cutoff from 6 to 10 were three former judges who are now in the legislature: Morey along with Joe John and Abe Jones, both Democrats who represent parts of Raleigh. Some Republicans were originally on board with that idea, too. An early version of the bill set the age limit at 10. But then a group that lobbies for prosecutors said they wanted to put the limit at 8, said Republican Rep. Ted Davis of Wilmington on Wednesday.
So lawmakers changed the language to say people as young as 8 could face accusations that are the equivalent of felonies, while only those 10 and up could be accused of the equivalent of misdemeanors and some low-level felonies. On Wednesday Morey tried amending the bill to change the minimum age to 10 across the board. Davis told his fellow Republicans that he saw reasons to vote either way.
“I’m really between a rock and a hard place on this,” he said.
Several minutes later Republicans shot down Morey’s amendment, deciding to put the age cutoff at 8.
And while Democrats protested that decision, Republican Rep. Sarah Stevens of Mount Airy said her fellow GOP lawmakers listened to Democrats on other parts of the bill. “There were a couple of things we wanted that were even further than this,” she said. In the end, the final vote did reflect the bipartisan work that went into the bill. It passed 101-1. The lone dissenter was Rep. Larry Pittman, a Republican from Cabarrus County.
HOW TO BEST HELP TROUBLED KIDS?
Part of the division between Democrats and Republicans is over whether it helps young kids to involve them in the criminal justice system. Democrats say children can’t possibly understand things like their Miranda rights, or how court proceedings work, and that they shouldn’t be given a record so early in their lives. Republicans say the system helps kids get help and potentially turn their lives around. Stevens said many kids who get in trouble at such an early age have a “background or emotional trauma that’s causing them to act out this way.” Sending them into the juvenile justice system is the best way to get them professional help like counseling, she said.
“We need to get them help,” Stevens said. “And until we can otherwise change the system we need to ensure that they’re going to stay under our courts’ jurisdiction.” Other Republicans, however, supported keeping the age limit younger for other reasons. Asheboro Rep. Allen McNeill, who spent decades with the Randolph County Sheriff’s Office, said young children commit “a lot of serious crimes.”
When Durham Democratic Rep. Zack Hawkins asked McNeill what data he was looking at, McNeill cited a state study that he said found 142 allegations against children under 10 of what he personally considered to be serious crimes. McNeill then read off some of those allegations: one for assault by pointing a gun, one for assault by strangulation, several for arson and a few dozen for other allegations like assaulting teachers or committing sexual misconduct. Hawkins responded that those cases shouldn’t scare lawmakers into keeping hundreds more children at risk of getting a record over more minor issues.
“If there are 1.2 million kids that are in the public school system, we are talking about a really miniscule number,” he said. The News & Observer has previously reported on young kids who were accused in the juvenile justice system over throwing pencils in school, throwing rocks at a construction site, and even a 6-year-old accused of destruction of personal property for picking a flower at a bus stop.
NORTH CAROLINA AN OUTLIER
As Morey said Wednesday, and as previously reported by The N&O, no other state in the country explicitly allows police and prosecutors to accuse kids as young as 6. However, there are many states that don’t have an age limit at all, which leaves it up to individual discretion. Some advocates and experts, like those at the National Juvenile Justice Network, recommend an age limit of 14 years old for the juvenile justice system. Last year, a task force authorized by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper recommended setting North Carolina’s age limit at 12. If this version of the bill proposing a new limit of 8 becomes law, North Carolina would still among the strictest states in the nation. But it would no longer have the absolute lowest age limit. The N&O has reported that some states allow 7-year-olds to be accused.
Juvenile justice changes have gained steam here lately, as the state has been an outlier in other ways, too.
Until December of 2019 when a new law went into effect, North Carolina was the only state in the country that automatically charged all 16 and 17-year-olds as adults, with no option to handle them as juveniles even for minor allegations.