Raising the age for juvenile offenders provides second chances but could flood system

Raising the age for juvenile offenders provides second chances but could flood system

MECKLENBURG COUNTY, N.C. — Soon, 16- and 17-year-olds who commit crimes in North Carolina won’t be tried as adults.

Iisha Brown is proud that her daughter, Olivia, graduated high school and is at Central Piedmont Community College, despite having an adult criminal record.

“Girl bigger than her, so what is she supposed to do? Defend herself. They start fighting,” Brown said.

Content Continues Below

Olivia was 17 at the time. She was kicked out of high school and charged with assault.

"CPCC is the only school that would take her. All the other schools said no because she had a criminal record," Brown said.

North Carolina is the only state where the age of adulthood is 16, but that is about to change.

The state will raise the age of adulthood to 18 next year.

“I think all of us are excited across the state,” Juvenile Court Judge Lou Trosch said.

The juvenile system is about second chances.

“Part of rehabilitation is imposing consequences and part of rehabilitation is making sure the community is safe,” Trosch said.

District Attorney Spencer Merriweather is applauding the change.

"There is no question that this is a positive for 16- and 17-year-olds who commit misdemeanors and low-level crimes,” Merriweather said.

While many advocates are cheering, there are some concerns.

"Mecklenburg, as a line item in the budget, we didn't get anything,” Emily Tamilin, with the Council for Children’s Rights, said.

The Legislature hasn’t given Mecklenburg County any extra money for what’s expected to be a flood of 1,000 extra juveniles.

Officials are trying to figure out where to put them. Juveniles cannot legally be housed in the same facility as adults.

Typically, most of Charlotte’s juvenile offenders are sent to Stonewall Jackson in Concord, but it’s not unusual for them to go as far away as Wilmington.

"I got to tell you, that for us, that is probably the most critical issue. Where are we going to house our kids in detention?" Trosch asked.

There are other problems with the law. One loophole could slam the door on a whole class of kids, and all you have to do is get a speeding ticket.

"A child that gets a speeding ticket is automatically considered an adult and stays in the adult system for any future offenses," Tamilin said.

That means a 16-year-old with a speeding ticket who shoplifts is an adult, while one without that ticket is a juvenile.

"Once you are an adult under this statute, for any reason, you are an adult for the rest of your life," Bob Simmons, with the Council for Children’s Rights, said.

In the juvenile system, offenders are tracked, counseled and there is more family involvement, which costs money that the state hasn’t provided.

Merriweather said his office is prepared.

"When you’re trying to hold someone accountable, but hold them accountable and make it so they don't return to your system, that is labor intensive. That is going to require more work and sometimes might require more prosecutors," Merriweather said.

Brown feels the cost is worth it. She doesn’t want to see any more teens branded for live.

"Kids are going to make mistakes, big or small,” Brown said. “The thing is for us to be there to help them, not to handcuff them, not to take away the possibility of getting an education and having a life."