Groups discuss juvenile justice reform

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — North Carolina is one of only two states that still prosecute 16 and 17 year olds as adults.

On Thursday night, teen advocacy groups and many community leaders met in Uptown Charlotte to call for juvenile justice reform.

"They can't buy alcohol. They can't vote. They can't buy cigarettes. Why in the world would they be treated as adults in the court system?" said Frank Crawford who represents the Mecklenburg Children's Alliance.

Advocates for a bill that was filed recently, House Bill 280, said 16 and 17 year olds who are charged with violent felonies, like murder, rape and robbery, will still be prosecuted as adults.

However, if the bill is approved, non-violent crimes and misdemeanors would be handled in juvenile court instead, where the focus is connecting them with help.

Instead of going to jail for minor crimes, such as stealing and trespassing, the teens would be sent to youth detention centers. In addition, their crimes wouldn't be on their records permanently.

District Court Judge Lou Trosch thinks it's a good idea but he's worried lawmakers won't give the county the money they'll needed to effectively reform the juvenile justice system.

"There are going to be costs and I don't know what they are and frankly I'm concerned about that," he said.

It would likely cost millions to fund the extra resources, such as more courtrooms and law and court administrators. They would be needed to handle the extra juvenile cases.

The county manager is trying to figure out how much it would cost to reform the juvenile justice system in Mecklenburg County. She's planning to take that data to lawmakers.

Marcus Philemon, with CharMeck CourtWatch, is trying to stop the bill. He said most of the juveniles in jail in Charlotte right are charged with violent felonies.

He'd thought the bill would put the community at risk by giving criminals an easy way out.

"Sixteen and 17year olds are getting more violent at a young age. They're exposed more. They're becoming more dangerous at a young age," said Philemon.

While similar bills have failed many times in Raleigh before, supporters think House Bill 280 has a real chance, because it has bipartisan support this year.

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