What Age Must a Person be to be Charged as an Adult in North Carolina?

As of April 2017, North Carolina was the last state in the United States that automatically tried 16-year-olds as adults in court, regardless of the crime. A very real example of the need for changes to this law came when a 16-year-old girl forgot to attend her court date for a littering citation and was subsequently arrested at her high school in front of her classmates. All of this for a simple oversight regarding a ticket that could have easily been taken care of. The shocking realization that North Carolina was the last state to act, caused nonprofits, lobbyists, and politicians alike to focus their efforts into forcing a change. The drafted legislation was labeled as the ‘Raise the Age’ plan and proposed that lawmakers raise the age that a child would automatically be put into adult court from 16 to 18 for all non-violent crimes.

In 2016, in preparation of the ‘Raise the Age’ legislation, leaders of the Division of Adult Correction and Juvenile Justice (DACJJ) spent many hours researching the possible effects of the change and the likelihood that it would be passed. The DACJJ believed that bipartisan support would be found in the potential passage of the legislation in 2017 and leaders discovered that the law change would bring with it certain economic advantages. The DACJJ research found that there would be a 7.5 % decrease in the chance that a teen would face future charges when they were tried in juvenile court versus the adult system. Essentially, this means that when a 16 or 17-year-old is tried in juvenile court, they are 7.5 % less likely to return to the court room for future charges than if they were first tried as an adult. In turn, this means lower costs of imprisonment as well as the chance for individuals without criminal records to have better career opportunities and higher earnings for the rest of their lives. Studies estimate the economic benefit to the state at somewhere between $7.1 million and $52.3 million.

While numbers like this present the law change as an economic benefit, many North Carolinians see and appreciate the moral right that it would bring as well. Children aged 16 and 17 who are accused of a crime in North Carolina are at a disadvantage to similarly aged teens in other states. In juvenile court, offenders’ names and interactions with the court can be shielded from the public. For example, a teen charged with a crime in South Carolina could keep the details of that incident private from the public while a teen in North Carolina charged with the exact same crime would face greater scrutiny when applying for entry into schools or seeking employment opportunities.

During the 2017 legislative session, lawmakers officially passed the Raise the Age Legislation as part of the final state budget. However, it is important to note that this change is not set to take effect until December of 2019. The passage of the new legislation is monumental, but teens must realize that until December 1st, 2019, they will continue to be charged as an adult. It also important to note the specifics of the new law. The change does not mean that teens charged with violent crimes cannot be moved up into the adult system. There was no change to the current law that those as young as 13 who are accused of a violent crime can be tried as adults. Class G felonies such as arson, burglary, possession of a firearm by a felon, and some drug sales crimes will still be transacted automatically in adult court. The newly passed law though will ensure that 16 and 17-year-olds charged with misdemeanors and certain non-violent felonies will be first sent to juvenile court instead of an automatic path to the adult system.

There is some uncertainty as to how the change will affect teenagers who are already in the adult system at the time that the new law takes effect. The hope is that with the delayed start to the change, leaders will have time to address any uncertainties and prepare for possible effects such as an increase in the number of juvenile cases or overcrowding in juvenile detention facilities.

If you, or someone you know has been charged with a crime regardless of age it is extremely important to speak with an experienced criminal defense attorney in your area. Arnold & Smith, PLLC is a criminal defense and civil litigation firm in Charlotte, Mooresville and Monroe North Carolina. Our dedicated defense attorneys fight for the rights of our clients on a variety of criminal charges. Please contact us today for an initial consultation with one of our attorneys.