- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 21, 2014

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - After extensive debate Wednesday, North Carolina’s House approved a bill that that would classify 16 and 17-year-olds as juveniles in court when facing misdemeanor charges.

The Young Offenders Rehabilitation Act was passed 77 to 39. The bill does not address felony charges.

The bill would also establish an advisory committee to create new civil citation processes for juveniles who are charged with misdemeanor crimes and includes an amendment that would exempt gang members and gang crimes. In the version that was passed, 16 and 17-year-olds would be exempt from juvenile status if they are gang members and their crime was related to gang activity.

North Carolina is one of two states that prosecute 16 and 17-year-olds as adults when charged with misdemeanors offenses.

Supporters argued that 16 was too young to be held responsible for decisions that could affect the trajectory of their lives. Rep. Bob Steinburg, R-Chowan, said he likely would not be sitting in the chamber if someone had not given him another chance after the dumb choices he made as a young person.

“Think about what might have happened to you if someone had not given you a second chance,” he said. To fail to reflect and recognize on that would be “the ultimate act of hypocrisy,” he said.

But at 16 or 17, one should know the difference between right and wrong, said Rep. Larry Pittman, R-Cabarrus.

“I don’t think 16 is inappropriate that you do the crime you pay the consequences,” he said.

If the bill is passed by the Senate, the changes would take effect in 2019 for 16-year-olds and 2020 for 16 and 17-year-olds. It would cost the state $16.5 million in its first year of implementation and $55.5 million in the second. The money would pay for a Youth Development Center, two multi-purpose group homes, and more court counselors and community-based programs that will be needed for the new population in the juvenile system, according to House fiscal staff.

Supporters of raising the age for youthful offenders to be tried in adult court have been working on the issue in North Carolina for several years. Previous legislation has been blocked as prosecutors say serious crimes by young people have grown and lawmakers want to be perceived as tough on crime.

The bill will now head to the Senate for approval.

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