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NC advances bill to prevent 6-year-olds from going to court

June 30, 2021 GMT
Barbara Fedders, attorney, University of North Carolina School of Law professor and director of the Youth Justice Clinic, poses for a photo at the School of Law in Chapel Hill, N.C., Thursday, June 10, 2021. North Carolina state lawmakers recently advanced a bill that would prevent 6- to 9-year-olds from having to appear before a judge for juvenile justice proceedings. This would end the state's status as being the only one left that subjects such young children to these courtroom appearances. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
Barbara Fedders, attorney, University of North Carolina School of Law professor and director of the Youth Justice Clinic, poses for a photo at the School of Law in Chapel Hill, N.C., Thursday, June 10, 2021. North Carolina state lawmakers recently advanced a bill that would prevent 6- to 9-year-olds from having to appear before a judge for juvenile justice proceedings. This would end the state's status as being the only one left that subjects such young children to these courtroom appearances. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — A North Carolina House committee on Wednesday approved a bill to raise the minimum age at which young children have to appear before a judge, ending a roughly three-month period in which the idea stalled within the state legislature.

Children as young as 6 can currently be prosecuted in the North Carolina juvenile court system — the lowest age set by law in the country. If the bill advances through the legislature and is signed into law, the age threshold would increase to 10.

But the bill underwent several changes that make it far more expansive than initially intended. Since the bill was filed in March, it has ballooned in size from five pages to 16.

“It’s the first time that I have been involved in what we call a Christmas tree bill, and that is one that starts out as something pretty simple and all these ornaments keep adding onto it that end up having a Christmas tree,” said Rep. Ted Davis, a New Hanover County Republican and chairman of the House judiciary committee that approved the measure.

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In the bill’s current form, juvenile justice courts may exercise jurisdiction over parents of children aged 6 to 9. Instead of having young children go before a judge, the bill would provide kids in that age group with counseling services for up to six months.

The proposal requires parents to attend all scheduled meetings with the juvenile court counselor, attend parental responsibility classes and work with the counselor to coordinate medical services for the child.

Department of Public Safety data shows 211 children ages 6 to 9 appeared before a judge during the three fiscal years from 2016 to 2019. No child under 10 was put behind bars, though four parents were held in contempt of juvenile court, including one mother who spent two days in jail, according to DPS. Black children aged 6 to 9, particularly boys, are disproportionately accused of wrongdoing in the juvenile court system, according to DPS data. Most complaints originate from schools.

Senate Bill 207 now makes its way to the House Rules Committee, where, if approved, it would advance to the House floor. The Senate could then have to decide whether to adopt the House’s new language. An effort to raise the minimum age of delinquency from 6 to 10 previously already passed the Senate unanimously.

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Follow Anderson on Twitter at https://twitter.com/BryanRAnderson.

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Anderson is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.