Winston-Salem council: Stop prosecuting 16-year-olds as adults

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Winston-Salem City Council speaks with one voice against the practice of prosecuting 16- and 17-year-olds as adults, but splits over changing the schedule for municipal elections.

Winston-Salem council members fractured in an uncharacteristically volatile session on Monday night over the city’s legislative agenda.

The first crack appeared when Councilman Robert Clark, the body’s lone Republican member, announced he would not support the set of six requests, disparaging it as “probably the worst package I’ve ever seen” in his 15 years on council and adding, “Four of the six are dead on arrival, and the other two are technical amendments.”

Clark’s dissension prompted a plea from Councilman James Taylor, a former juvenile justice counselor, for unity to support a request that the General Assembly change the age of jurisdiction so that teenagers under the age of 18 are no longer prosecuted as adults in North Carolina. Taylor said he has been fighting to change the law since he joined city council in 2009.

“North Carolina is one of two states in America that still charges juveniles as adults at the age of 16,” he said. “I think that is a terrible practice, and we have to do a better job of providing better opportunities for our citizens…. Think about when you were 16. Maybe we didn’t do everything correctly; maybe we did do everything correctly. A decision that’s made by a young person at the age of 16 follows them for the rest of their lives. They have trouble finding housing. They have trouble finding jobs.”

At Taylor’s urging, Clark agreed to reconsider. The juvenile justice request was pulled from the package and council approved it unanimously. In a separate motion, Councilman Dan Besse removed a controversial request to change the city’s election schedule, and council members approved the balance, including requests to make police body- and dash-camera video a public record, to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, to clean up obsolete language in the city’s election ordinance and to allow the city to recover more costs from efforts to address housing complaints.

A panel from an independent commission convened by state Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Martin recommended in a draft report released in July that the General Assembly raise the age of jurisdiction to 18, with the exception of felonies and traffic offenses. A registered Republican, Martin was appointed to the post in 2012 by Gov. Pat McCrory.

“A substantial body of evidence suggests that both youthful offenders and society benefit when persons under 18 years old are treated in the juvenile system rather than the criminal justice system,” the Criminal Investigation & Adjudication Committee of the Martin Commission stated in its interim report. “In response to this evidence, other states have raised the juvenile age. Notwithstanding recommendations from two legislatively-mandated studies of the issue, positive experiences in other states that have raised the age, and two cost-benefit studies showing that raising the age would benefit the state economically, North Carolina has yet to take action on this issue.”

Rep. John Blust (R-Guilford), who chairs the House Judiciary II Committee, said he supports the initiative.

“I can be accused of being fairly hard to budge,” Blust said in an interview, “but this is one where I’ve come to be convinced that it is best, with limited exceptions, to not run juveniles through the adult system. It’s not really tougher on crime. Many times they’ll get some probation, and many times it’s actually tougher to put them in the juvenile system.”

Councilman Clark criticized his colleagues’ request that the General Assembly declare footage from police body-worn cameras to be a public record, while putting the burden on prosecutors, police officers and citizens depicted in the recordings to seek a court order to block disclosure. The requested legislation would reverse a law signed by outgoing Gov. McCrory, which places the burden on members of the public to sue for release of the video.

Clark said the requested legislation would not solve the problem of providing transparency.

“It doesn’t matter whether we use the current system or the one we had before,” he said. “If it is controversial — and if it’s not controversial nobody cares about it — but if it is controversial with a particular crime involved, the DA is gonna get a court order and it’s not going to be shown to the general public until it is resolved. And that makes sense. I understand why the DA does that: If you’re involved in something that you probably shouldn’t have been doing, you’d love to see the video so you can make sure you get your story straight.”

Councilman Taylor, who chairs the public safety committee, argued that the legislature overstepped its bounds in suppressing the video.

“These body cameras were not paid for by Raleigh,” he said. “These body cameras were paid for by our local city tax dollars, and from what I’m hearing from the community, this is what they want. These cameras were paid for by the community and they need to have access, transparency and accountability.”

The comment by Clark that raised the most ire from his Democratic colleagues was his criticism of a request to move municipal elections back to odd years. This year, for the first time, Winston-Salem City Council elections were held during a presidential election year, thanks to a bill filed by Republican former state Rep. Dale Folwell in 2011.

“This is proof that voter suppression is alive and well in the Democratic Party of Forsyth County,” Clark said. “If we do this the number of people who voted in this election will be one-tenth of what voted this last time.”

Some black members of city council took offense at Clark’s statement.

“To assert that an act of moving the elections back to a time in which they had happened historically is equal to voter suppression I think is an atrocious statement because when you look at voter suppression historically, voter suppression has been targeted specifically to prohibit individuals from having access to the polls,” Councilman Derwin Montgomery said. “You think about literacy tests. You think about people having to say their ABCs backwards and having to read the dictionary in order to vote — that’s voter suppression.

“This has nothing and it’s nowhere close to anything that can be considered voter suppression,” he added, “and I think that’s a slap in the face to those who have fought consistently to make sure that people of all backgrounds and all ages, all races, all creeds have an opportunity to get to exercise their basic fundamental right of casting their ballot.”