North Carolina Governor vetoes law trying more juveniles as adults

Gov. Roy Cooper on Friday vetoed a bill that would have tried more young North Carolinians accused of serious crimes as adults immediately, instead of first handling them within the juvenile justice system.

In a memo explaining his veto of House Bill 834, Cooper said young defendants tried in juvenile court have the benefit of punishments less severe than prison time, such as mental-health counseling and other remedial measures.

“Most violent crimes, even when committed by teenagers, should be handled in adult court,” Cooper wrote in his June 14 veto message. “However, there are cases where sentences would be more effective and appropriate to the severity of the crime for teenagers if they were handled in juvenile court, making communities safer.” 

Defendants who are 16 and 17 years old are first tried in juvenile court for serious crimes ranging from murder and rape to robbery, violent assault and assaults involving firearms. They are then transferred to Superior Court at the behest of prosecutors, who can opt to retain less-serious felonies in juvenile court where records are not public. 

Passed by the House and Senate earlier this month, House Bill 834 would modify juvenile justice reform measures passed by the General Assembly in 2019 calling for 16 and 17 year-olds to be tried in adult courts for crimes including murder, robbery and assaults with firearms.

That so-called “Raise the Age” law mandated that all nonviolent offenses alleged to have been committed by someone younger than 18 would be heard in juvenile court, while more serious offenses would begin there and then be transferred to Superior Court. The law is aimed at providing mental health and other services to juvenile defendants and keeping them from being tarnished by criminal records after being tried as adults.

“This bill makes this important option highly unlikely and begins to erode our bipartisan ‘Raise the Age’ law we agreed to four years ago,” Cooper wrote. “While a number of Senators worked to make this legislation better than the original bill, I remain concerned that this new law would keep some children from getting treatment they need while making communities less safe.” 

“Instead, the legislature should invest significantly more in our juvenile justice system to ensure resources are available to help prevent crimes and appropriately deal with children who break the law,” Cooper added. 

Republicans hold veto-proof majorities in both houses of the State Legislature. It is not yet clear if party leadership plans to attempt an override of Cooper’s veto.

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