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Big Changes Coming To State Criminal Justice System For 16 And 17-Year-Olds

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  A big change in North Carolina's criminal justice system takes effect Sunday. Sixteen and 17-year-old will no longer automatically be considered as adults when they're charged with crimes. Their cases will be handled by the juvenile justice system.

Credit judgeelizabethtrosch.com
Judge Elizabeth Trosch

North Carolina was the last state to decide not to treat 16 and 17-year-olds as adults when it comes to crime. But challenges are expected with the switch to the system. Mecklenburg County District Court Judge Elizabeth Trosch joins David Boraks to discuss those challenges. 

David Boraks: Welcome, Judge Trosch.

Elizabeth Trosch: Thank you for having me.

Boraks: So let me start out with a little background. How long have 16 and 17-year-olds been treated as adults in North Carolina's criminal justice system? And what's been the effect of that policy?

Trosch: Well, for as long as I can remember, 16, 17-year-olds have been treated as an adult, at least since the most recent juvenile code was enacted. So it's been over 20 years. The effect of that has been that when 16 and 17-year-olds commit crimes, even minor crimes, they end up having permanent criminal records that can follow them for the rest of their lives and certainly shut important doors to federal financial aid, college admission, employment, and housing. 

Boraks: So what are the difficulties in switching over to this new system? I mean, if we have a good roadmap from all the other states about how it works, shouldn't that help us? 

Trosch: I think we have learned a lot from other states that have even more recently enacted laws raising the age of juvenile jurisdiction to 18. But that doesn't mean that we're totally out of the woods in terms of challenges. We're trying to identify the resources that are necessary in order to ensure that we're able to serve what will be for Mecklenburg County about a 50% increase in juvenile caseloads as effectively and fully as we have the juveniles that we've been serving thus far.

Boraks: So a big increase in caseload. Are there other challenges? 

Trosch: Well, procedurally, there are some challenges that magistrates, law enforcement officers, judges, and prosecutors are going to be trained to really learn and get practiced in. Implementing the law is a little complicated. So essentially, a 16 or 17-year-old who has never previously been convicted of a crime and is charged with a crime on December 1 or after will start their case in juvenile court. So procedurally, there are challenges just around defining what is a prior conviction, researching that information in order to make the decision about whether a summons or warrant for adult process should be issued or whether a petition initiating a juvenile process should be issued. 

In addition to that, 16 and 17-year-olds who are charged with an A - G felony, something that we would consider to be a violent felony, are subject to automatic transfer to superior court for prosecution as an adult once a judge finds probable cause or the district attorney obtains an indictment, 

Boraks: Lawmakers in North Carolina passed this change two years ago. Why isn't this system ready now, two years later, to handle this change? 

Trosch: Well, the legislature created what they called a juvenile justice advisory committee to study the law and to consult with practitioners in the field across the state in order to identify changes or modifications that would be necessary. Some of those changes were only very recently passed, including extending the period of time that prosecutors had to establish probable cause or obtain an indictment and creating a process for removing a case back to juvenile court. If there’s a determination in adult criminal court that it would be more appropriately held in juvenile court. For some time, we did not have a budget and so certain allocation for resources to implement the law has not been made. 

Boraks: Listening to all of this, I'm wondering, are we ready for the change next week? 

Trosch: I think we have done everything that we can do to be ready. The prosecutor’s office has spent months training law enforcement agencies across the county and magistrates about the law, and their procedural duties. We've worked hard through our collaborative partnerships to identify the resources that we need and implement what we can. And I think we're ready. I think we're going to learn some things through the implementation process. We'll be identifying, I'm sure, opportunities for improvement. But at some point, we just have to take the plunge. 

Boraks: One last question. If a 16 or 17-year-old gets charged between now and Sunday, will they still be charged as an adult? 

Trosch: They will. There have been discussions in the legislature and in the administrative office of the courts about creating an expulsion procedure specifically for 16 and 17-year-olds who may have been charged and even convicted of a crime in that two year period, from passage to implementation to sort of even the playing field for those kids who didn't get the benefit of the change. But we don't have a framework for doing that yet.

Boraks: Well, thanks, Judge Trosch. 

Trosch: Thank you for having me. 

Boraks: That's Mecklenburg County District Court Judge Elizabeth Trosch talking about the state's new law that raises the age to 18 for treating teenagers as adults when they're charged with a crime.