Conservatives Pushing Criminal Justice Reform | Eastern North Carolina Now | A nationally recognized criminal justice reformer is confident North Carolina eventually will overturn a state law allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to be charged as adults, but acknowledges political resistance to the proposal remains.

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    Publisher's note: The author of this post is Dan Way, who is an associate editor for the Carolina Journal, John Hood Publisher.

Experts advocate raising age for prosecuting teens as adults in N.C., elsewhere

    RALEIGH     A nationally recognized criminal justice reformer is confident North Carolina eventually will overturn a state law allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to be charged as adults, but acknowledges political resistance to the proposal remains.

    "We're continuing to work on raising the age of juvenile jurisdiction," said Marc Levin, director for the Center of Effective Justice and Right on Crime, a project of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, the American Conservative Union Foundation, and the Prison Fellowship.

    "I would feel fairly safe in predicting that it will pass in the next few years, but we just haven't quite gotten there yet," he said.

    Levin said noted the "great support" of lead House sponsor Rep. Marilyn Avila, R-Wake, but added that Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, has been skeptical of proposals introduced in recent sessions.

    Levin, who has written a report for the John Locke Foundation on juvenile justice reform, said North Carolina is one of only two states that treat 16- and 17-year-old offenders as adults in the criminal justice system. Eight states allow 17-year-old minors to be charged as adults.

    "It produces terrible results to put 16-year-olds in the adult criminal justice system. They get a permanent record for stealing even a candy bar," Levin said. Raising the age to 18 would not prevent minors who commit rape, murder, and other serious crimes from being charged as an adult.

    Some prosecutors oppose raising the age, but Levin said it would benefit sheriffs. The federal Prison Rape Elimination Act requires county jails to provide separate quarters and programs for 16- and 17-year-old inmates because statistically they are far more likely to be sexually molested by other inmates and staff.

    "So that's very costly to have all these separate facilities and programs," Levin said.

    Currently, a 16- or 17-year-old inmate can borrow money to post bail, or get released on their own recognizance, and parents might never know their child was arrested.

    "It's beneficial for a parent to know their 16-year-old has been arrested," said Levin, who was interviewed last week during a State Policy Network conference in Grand Rapids, Mich.

    Former Virginia attorney general Ken Cuccinelli, who also spoke at the event, said "government is out of control in many ways," and took aim at the rapid increase of federal laws.

    He said he was "particularly incensed about" criminal offenses that are established by regulatory agencies. "Literally, bureaucrats are turning us into criminals without the accountability of an elected official of any kind," Cuccinelli said.

    "I actually think it would be better not to allow agencies to establish federal law. It is trampling individual liberties," he said.

    He advocates a mens rea requirement in state statutes, providing those charged with crimes to use as a defense that they did not intend to break any law. Ignorance of the law is no defense, he noted, but with the rise of so many laws on the books, in some cases, perhaps it should be.

    "It undermines the constitutional republic that we have here, because it takes away accountability if unnamed, unseen elements of government can turn you into a criminal, and that can't be allowed to happen in America, but it is happening," Cuccinelli said.

    "There's enormous swaths of Virginia law that I will never know" after two decades as a lawyer and serving as the attorney general, so the average citizen would never know all the laws.

    While he believes public safety "is the first priority of government, whether it be national or state," and "we need prisons to protect ourselves," he said criminal justice reform is needed.

    "Medicaid is the only part of state budgets that has grown faster and more out of control than corrections," Cuccinelli said.

    "High recidivism means failure. We are failing" to protect society, budgets, "and individuals who come into this system ... because of their choices," he said. "They are not victims, they are criminals," but they should be viewed through the lens that "no one is beyond redemption."
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