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Raising the age: Debate over juvenile crime reform heats up as Wake County makes new investments

RALEIGH, NC (WTVD) – Following Governor Roy Cooper's veto of HB 834, criminal justice reform advocates are speaking out about the bill that would automatically transfer certain juvenile criminal cases to adult courts.

Under the bill, which could still be overturned by a veto, 16- and 17-year-old suspects charged with the most serious offenses — felonies in classes A through E — would automatically be transferred to Superior Court or adult court instead of going through the juvenile justice system. The bill allows prosecutors to refer youths back to juvenile court if necessary.

“Once they start in juvenile court, there are a whole host of other resources available to help these kids,” said Dawn Blagrove, executive director of Emancipate NC.

Blagrove expressed concern that overriding the governor's veto would undo important progress made by “Raise the Age,” the 2019 amendment to North Carolina state law that raised the age of juvenile delinquency from 16 to 18.

“Kids who go through the adult criminal system have a much higher recidivism rate than those who go through the juvenile criminal system. So if we care about community safety, we really want to keep as many kids in the juvenile criminal system as possible,” Blagrove said.

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

Supporters argue that the bill does not adequately take into account the context of juvenile delinquency.

“I've heard them say I'm a product of my environment. When I see these things, I think it's normal, normal behavior, but it's not,” said Diana Powell, executive director of Justice Served NC.

The debate over HB 834 comes as Wake County increases its investment in juvenile crime prevention. On Monday, Wake County County Commissioners approved a funding increase for their Juvenile Crime Prevention Council to over $3 million for the next fiscal year. County Commissioner Matt Calabria tells ABC11 the county is also hiring a full-time employee for the first time to oversee that council.

Blagrove supports the investment, but believes it could 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 passed with bipartisan support, and only four Democrats who voted yes were needed to stand firm to get the votes to override the governor's veto. The timeline for when the matter may be taken up again in the House is unclear.

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