ELLIOT: Raise the age now, but pause on Marsys law

Madeline Gray—North State Journal
North Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Martin waits to enter a press conference on May 1to discuss his support for raising the age for juvenile offenders. House Bill 280 proposes that for nonviolent offenses 16- and 17-year-olds will not be automatically tried as adults.

Depending on the controlling perception of public safety at any one time, legislators ping-pong between wanting to be seen as “tough on crime” and “modernizing the criminal justice system.” The crime waves of the 1980s sowed many get-tough measures at both the state and federal levels, but falling crime rates since then have ushered in an era of changes that would have been opposed as “coddling criminals” in the ’80s.So it is fascinating to see a pair of bipartisan bills, one that could be put in the modernization category and one that could be put in the get-tough category, advancing in North Carolina’s General Assembly this session.The modernizing effort is a bill to raise the age at which defendants are automatically tried as adults in North Carolina. The Old North State is now the only state in the union to treat 16- and 17-year-old defendants this way. House Bill 280 would change that, allowing minors to be tried as adults only for violent felonies.The bill, called the Juvenile Justice Reinvestment Act, has some high-profile supporters. Mark Martin, chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court, is one. Martin has compared H.B. 280 to the Justice Reinvestment Act, a bipartisan 2011 effort to reform the adult criminal justice system in the state. According to a fact sheet provided by the Administrative Office of the Courts, “those policy changes led to the lowest state prison population in a decade and saved the state nearly $165 million from 2012-2015.” North Carolina’s crime rates, Martin points out, decreased over that time period.The N.C. Sheriffs’ Association, the John Locke Foundation, the N.C. Department of Public Safety, state Superintendent Mark Johnson, some prosecutors, and the North Carolina League of Municipalities all support the bill. It also has 68 co-sponsors in the House, more than half the chamber.But despite all that support, H.B. 280 is stuck in committee, which makes it very different from House Bill 551, which passed the House 98-17 on April 27.H.B. 551, also known as Marsy’s law, would put a constitutional amendment before voters that would alter the existing state constitutional protections for victims. Marsy Nicholas was killed by her ex-boyfriend in 1983 in California, and while the suspect was out on bail he confronted Marsy’s mother and brother in a grocery store. The brother, billionaire Henry T. Nicholas, has taken that nonviolent confrontation as an impetus of a personal crusade to enshrine his version of victims’ rights into every state constitution. And he has put his money where his mouth is, donating many millions to Marsy’s Law for All, an organization he founded to push the effort nationwide following his success in his native California.Nicholas’ intentions are good and pure, and most of the changes are little more than copy edits to the existing constitutional rights victims have in North Carolina, which were added via referendum in the 1990s. But the amendment would also include a massive change in legal reasoning and tradition. It would give victims’ the right to intervene in criminal cases, upsetting a centuries-old separation of civil and criminal law.Victims have access to the civil system, but it is the state that prosecutes crimes — and for good reason. While civil penalties mostly are limited to monetary damages, the state can imprison, and even execute, wrongdoers. The gravity of those potential punishments is the reason for the separation of the criminal and the civil, distinct houses of justice that citizens have erected for different purposes.If North Carolina’s criminal system does not treat victims fairly, that is a reason for study and deliberation. Victims’ rights are already enshrined in the N.C. constitution, so there is no rush.Consider how these two ideas — Raise the Age and Marsy’s law — have been handled.On the one issue, we have a recommendation from a 65-member commission on judicial reform, convened by the chief justice of the state Supreme Court, that studied the matter for two years. On the other, we have a well-meaning California billionaire who wants another notch in his belt and has truckloads of cash (Nicholas spent more than $2.5 million in North Dakota alone).The priority should be clear. Raise the age now, but take a pause on Marsy’s law.
Drew Elliot is a member of the North State Journal’s editorial board, separate from the news staff. Unlike other newspapers, the North State Journal does not publish unsigned editorials; the author or authors of every editorial, letter, op-ed, and column is prominently displayed. To submit a letter or op-ed, see our submission guidelines.