Juvenile crime reform debate heats up as Wake County makes new investment

Sean Coffey Image
Friday, June 21, 2024
Juvenile crime reform debate heats up as veto override looms
Criminal justice reform advocates in North Carolina are speaking up as GOP looks to override Gov. Roy Cooper veto of HB 834.

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- In the wake of HB 834's veto by Governor Roy Cooper, criminal justice reform advocates are speaking out about the legislation that would automatically transfer certain juvenile cases to adult court.

Under the bill, which could still face a veto override, 16- and 17-year-old suspects charged with the most serious offenses -- A through E felonies -- would automatically be sent to Superior Court, or adult court, instead of passing through the juvenile system. The bill allows prosecutors to move juveniles back down to juvenile court, when appropriate.

"Having them start in juvenile court creates a whole plethora of other resources that are available to help these children," said Dawn Blagrove, Executive Director of Emancipate NC.

Blagrove said she's concerned an override of the Governor's veto would walk back important progress made by Raise the Age -- the change to North Carolina's state law in 2019 that moved the cutoff age for juvenile crimes from 16 up to 18.

"Children who go through the adult system as opposed to going through the juvenile system have a much higher recidivism rate. So if we are concerned about community safety, we really want to be keeping as many children in the juvenile system as possible," Blagrove said.

Prosecutors point out that most of the crimes covered by HB 834 ultimately end up in Superior Court anyway, and believe the bill could help streamline the court process for those most violent offenses committed by 16- and 17-year-old suspects. There are also concerns about the ability of the juvenile court system to handle the most serious juvenile cases, like murder.

Advocates counter that the bill doesn't adequately consider the context that youth crime stems from.

"I've heard them say I'm a product of my environment. If I see these things, then I'm going to think that is normal, normal behavior, which it's not," said Diana Powell, Executive Director of Justice Served NC.

The debate over HB 834 takes place as Wake County increases its investment in juvenile crime prevention. On Monday, Wake County Commissioners approved to transfer $1.8 million in state revenue to their Juvenile Crime Prevention Council, as well as "$3.1 million in operating costs out of Health and Human Services."

County Commissioner Matt Calabria tells ABC11 that the county is also hiring a full-time employee to oversee that council for the first time.

Blagrove supports the investment but believes it can start even sooner.

"If we invest in children from the beginning, if we invest in families from the beginning, then we don't need money," she said.

HB 834 was passed with bipartisan support, and only four Democrats who voted yes would need to stand firm to secure the votes to override the Governor's veto. The timeline on when the matter may be taken back up in the Legislature is not clear.