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Juvenile justice bill advances after debate on children’s rights vs. public safety


Juvenile justice bill advances after debate on children’s rights vs. public safety

Jun 01, 2023 | 5:56 am ET
By Kelan Lyons
Juvenile justice bill advances after debate on children’s rights vs. public safety
Screenshots from ncleg.gov of a House Judiciary 1 Committee hearing Wednesday in which legislators advanced a bill making changes to the juvenile justice system over concerns of advocates and two Democrats worried about the rights of young people accused of crimes.

Over the concerns of advocates worried about the rights and mental health of young people charged with serious crimes, members of a House Judiciary Committee advanced a bill Wednesday that makes changes to North Carolina’s juvenile justice system.

House Bill 834 would speed up the process of transferring minors charged with certain serious felonies to the adult justice system, allow a child’s name and photograph to be released if they were charged with certain crimes and a court determines that the child presents a “danger,” and allow minors to have “caretakers” — such as step- or foster parents — present when police are interviewing them. It also creates a procedure to determine a minor’s capacity to stand trial and requires services for children with mental health conditions who are charged with crimes, if those conditions impact their ability to understand the charges against them.

Rep. Ted Davis, Jr. portrait
Rep. Ted Davis Jr.

Rep. Ted Davis, Jr. (R-New Hanover) said the bill had been worked on extensively alongside the Division of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, the Conference of District Attorney’s and the NC Sheriff’s Association.

“We have gone around and around and around and come up with a final language that’s agreeable to all the stakeholders, and I hope that you will agree to it,” said Davis.

Recognizing the political winds, that powerful legislative players like the Conference of District Attorney’s supported the proposal, Rep. Pricey Harrison (D-Guilford) said she’d vote in favor of the bill, but she had concerns.

“I don’t think we’re doing justice to the juvenile justice system,” Harrison said.

Mental health conditions are pervasive among children in youth detention facilities: every child in those facilities across North Carolina have at least one diagnosis, Harrison said, and half have more than five diagnoses. In light of that ubiquity, Harrison took issue with automatically transferring children’s cases to Superior Court  if they are charged with certain crimes.

“These kids have disabilities, have mental health issues,” Harrison said. “And if they’re going to be treated like adults and sent to the adult prison system, they’re going to likely have problems and may want to attempt suicide. They may be assaulted.”

William Lassiter
Deputy Secretary of the Division of Juvenile Justice Delinquency and Prevention William Lassiter (Photo: NC Department of Public Safety)

The bill does not expand the list of crimes for which minors can be transferred to the adult system, said William Lassiter, the deputy secretary of the Division of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. It merely speeds up the process by which children are sent to adult court, so they don’t languish in the juvenile system for months.

“What we’re finding now is that those kids are often sitting in juvenile detention for 90, 180 days sometimes, awaiting for that process to transfer them to adult court,” Lassiter said. “So that is not actually making more kids eligible for transfer. It’s just expediting the process to transfer them.”

The transfer process came up again during the public comment portion of the hearing. Tara Muller, a policy attorney with Disability Rights North Carolina, said she is worried prosecutors will skirt capacity hearings by filing an indictment so the child’s case can be transferred to adult court.

Tara Muller
Tara Muller – Photo: Disability Rights NC

“It misses the whole point,” Muller said. “If a child is incapable of proceeding because of a mental illness or an intellectual disability or other disabilities — traumatic brain injury, for example — the court should address capacity before proceeding with the case. Otherwise, the child could be put in danger in adult jail, and also treatment could be delayed for what could be a very serious condition.”

Others expressed concern over the provision that would allow the public release of names and photos of children charged with certain crimes. More than 20% of children who are arrested are either found not guilty or have their cases dismissed, said Elizabeth Barber, policy council with the ACLU of North Carolina. Barber warned that releasing a minor’s name and photo could cause irreparable harm and make them more likely to wind up back behind bars at some point — an injustice compounded if they didn’t even commit the crime of which they are accused.

Elizabeth Barber
Elizabeth Barber – Photo: ACLU of NC

“Instead of backtracking, North Carolina should be building up on the reforms started by Raise the Age and work on addressing the root causes of crime and violence in our communities to prevent our youth from entering the justice system in the first place,” said Barber.

She also called the issues raised by the bill “a racial justice issue and a disability rights issue,” considering the racial disparities and over-representation of young people with disabilities in the justice system.

Davis said the public release of information was inserted into the bill after two people were murdered in Orange County. Police quickly had a suspect after finding the bodies, but they couldn’t release any information because that suspect was a child.

“And there are also more serious offenses that are committed by juveniles other than murder such as rape and other very, very serious crimes that they need this information for law enforcement to have, so they can get these people,” said Davis.

Throughout the debate Davis reminded his colleagues of the hard work he said legislators had put into reaching a “consensus” on the bill. Rep. Abe Jones (D-Wake), a former Superior Court judge, acknowledged that work, but said he remained worried the measure would have an overall harmful effect on children in the justice system.

“When it comes to young people in our system, I have been around long enough to know that they can get chopped up and chewed up and spit out pretty pretty quickly, because even big people get chopped up and chewed up and spit out,” Jones said. ” I think we have to look at these things carefully. And make sure that we have the proper protections in for young people.”

The bill is now scheduled to be reviewed by the Appropriations and Rules committees before it proceeds to the House floor.