Deputies frustrated in Union County by state law easing punishment for some teens commiting crimes

UNION COUNTY, N.C. — The Union County Sheriff’s Office told Channel 9′s Erika Jackson that they have seen a recent uptick in crimes involving minors.

But it’s hard for neighbors to keep an eye out for those offenders because a state law prevents their arrests and their names from being released.

Just Sunday morning, deputies said a teen was caught on camera breaking into unlocked cars in the Bonterra neighborhood. Officials said the suspect and other teenagers broke into 26 unlocked vehicles and stole two guns and even a car.

Authorities eventually found four suspects but had to release them because they were under 18 years old. Due to the “Raise the Age” law in North Carolina, the suspects face felonies in juvenile court.

“We identified the juvenile offenders, sought secure custody orders and they were denied. So these kids went back to their homes before the paperwork was even finished on all the work that it took to get them in custody,” said Lt. James Maye.

The stolen guns have not been recovered, officials said.

The same weekend, deputies said they caught five people for breaking into Wesley Chapel Elementary School after hours. The names of three of the suspects have been released, but state law prevents the arrest of the two 17-year-old offenders.

“It’s frustrating on our end that we’re not able to protect the public by holding these folks accountable,” Maye said.

The North Carolina “Raise the Age” law went into effect in 2019. The law is built to give first-time juvenile offenders a second chance. It keeps 16- and 17-year-olds in the juvenile court system.

“Treating them as juveniles, kind of more or less a slap on the wrist, can help some people. And they may take that as a learning experience,” said criminal defense attorney Aaron Lee.

Lee said that learning experience may keep teens from committing more serious crimes, though he believes it also comes with limited consequences.

“They were already out doing these things, and their parents didn’t know. Sending them right back to Mom and Dad, who knew nothing about this, isn’t stopping them,” Lee said.

The Union County Sheriff’s Office said investigators will file a petition through the Department of Juvenile Justice to charge each teen. Maye said it could be more than a month before they step in a courtroom.

In the meantime, Maye said his team is working around the clock to prevent others from falling victim.

“Our office is out on the streets working hard to make sure people’s property is protected and people themselves are protected,” he said.

Deputies said they’re going to have extra officers on patrol.

The sheriff’s office also wanted to remind everyone to lock their doors and cars.

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