Surviving on the strength of a last-gasp adrenaline rush, Tyrone Collins took a breath for one final farewell to his family.

A bullet had penetrated his heart.

“I am not going to make it,” the 21-year-old said to his little sister and mother.

With a painful gasp, he added, “I love ya’ll.”

“I love you too,” Lisa Adams said to her first-born and only son.

Those parting words at the back door of Adams’ Richard Green apartment six months ago have left her angered and confused.

She wants the age-old law of retribution — a life for a life.

“I hope justice is served; I hope he gets the death penalty,” Adams said of Jerrell Pridgen, the lead suspect in her son’s homicide. “In order for you to go to heaven, you have to forgive. I will never forgive him because he had no reason to kill my son.”

Adams’ desired sentence will not happen. The most Pridgen — 17 at the time the crime occurred — could get if convicted is life in prison without parole, said Branny Vickory, district attorney for Lenoir County. Vickory said in cases of homicide, teens as young as 13 can be tried as an adult and sentenced to a life behind bars.

After six years of discussion, the state legislature is zeroing in on a proposal that would shift some teen offenders out of adult into juvenile court. While the sentiments of court officials suggest it is the right thing to do, financial obstacles remain to its easy implementation.



Protecting youth



A 2005 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in Roger v. Simmons outlawed the death penalty for defendants who were younger than 18 when their crimes were committed, because of the “general differences” distinguishing them from adults — a lack of maturity, greater weakness to peer pressure and an undeveloped character.

That ruling has influenced a national consensus among many state legislatures to up the cutoff age its adult court systems prosecute teenagers, an act that aims to make the court system less punitive and more forgiving of today’s youth.

The movement includes North Carolina — the only state besides New York where adulthood, in criminal matters, begins on the 16th birthday. In response to the order, the state’s sentencing and policy advisory commission began talks in 2005 to raise the age at which the adult court system prosecutes juveniles. After two failed attempts in consecutive legislative sessions, the idea has finally progressed.

A 2011 report by the state’s Youth Accountability Task Force — a body of 70 legislators and experts appointed by the General Assembly in 2009 to design a plan to implement the law change — found that for nearly all of young offenders the juvenile justice system is better able to redirect their behavior due to the greater availability of rehabilitative services, said Sen. Ellie Kinnaird, D-Orange, co-chair of the task force.

Gov. Bev Perdue issued an executive order Jan. 14 to extend the task force’s 18 months of research through 2012. Three days later, the group submitted its final report to the General Assembly for another round of debate, Kinnaird said.

“We have excellent sponsors in the House and Senate we feel like can shepherd through the bill we are introducing,” Kinnaird told The Free Press in a telephone interview this week. “This is something we can wholeheartedly recommend for the people of North Carolina, as far as public safety is concerned, as well as restoring youth on the right path without penalizing them as adult criminals.”



Money, money, money



The newest recommendation would send 16- and 17-year-olds to the juvenile system if they are charged with a misdemeanor or a low-level, nonviolent felony — a class the State Bureau of Investigation reported includes 97 percent of the teens arrested in those age ranges.

The remaining 16- and 17-year-olds cited for traffic violations, previously convicted in Superior Court or charged with a serious, violent felony — such as armed robbery, arson, child abuse, embezzlement, kidnapping, manslaughter, murder, attempted murder and rape — will be treated as adults.

“It is up for consideration and most people think it will happen,” said Lenoir County District Court Judge Beth Heath, who, up until this year, primarily handled juveniles. “The question is just how will it be implemented and where will we get the funding to do it because it will change things.”

Scientific evidence that shows youth continue to undergo significant brain development into their 20s and lack the decision-making of adults may not be enough to trump the legislation’s money obstacles for a state grappling with a budget deficit.

More teens will fall under the jurisdiction of the court and correctional system North Carolina maintains for juveniles — the Department of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention — than the adult system — the Department of Correction. In some instances, the juvenile systems currently retains jurisdiction until the offender turns 19.

The juvenile system has a higher staff-to-offender ratio and more intensive programming that focuses on treatment and rehabilitation, said Heath and Vickory, also a skeptic of funding.

“It is a lot more expensive to prosecute a juvenile,” Vickory said. “The system has an incredible amount of resources it puts into its sentencing. It would be absurd to all of a sudden dump the system’s current requirements on the manpower it has now.”

The two said the state will have to hire more courtroom officials and counselors as the influx of teens entering the juvenile system will force the state to have delinquency court in Lenoir County more than once every two weeks. They said more money will need to be allocated locally to hold teens in youth detention and youth development centers.

If they cannot afford that, Vickory said it could come down to doing away with some of the mandated services the Department of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention offers in and out-of-the home, a list Heath said includes mentoring, psychological evaluations and therapy.

Right now, the department has 11 youth development centers across the state designed to rehabilitate youth. Two of the hubs are in Kinston on Dobbs Farm Road, including the Lenoir Youth Development Center, which houses 32 youth. Dobbs Youth Development Center neighbors Lenoir.

Expense reports from the court system estimate it costs between $100,000 and $120,000 each year to house one child at a youth development center. For short-term confinement, Lenoir County teens are taken to a youth detention center in Pitt County, at a cost of $178 a day, an expense the state splits with the county.



A win-win



The cost may seem exorbitant, but advocates emphasized a statistic from the Department of Correction that states youth who serve time in an adult prison in North Carolina are more likely to be reconvicted than those punished and rehabilitated in the juvenile system.

“Remember to look at it on the front end,” Heath cautioned opponents. “If we spend the money on this kid now, most likely he or she is not going to be coming back as an adult.”

An analysis by the Vera Institute of Justice, a criminal justice research group that has advocated alternatives to prison, found that transferring about 31,000 16- and 17-year-olds to North Carolina’s juvenile system would cost approximately $71 million annually, but generate $123 million in benefits each year, on the assumption it frees up the DOC.

The change would also increase federal funding to the state by as much as 20 percent as it would satisfy the requirements of the Federal Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevent Act. North Carolina fails to meet the parts of the law that call for removing low-level offenders from jails and lockups and keeping the minors that qualify for retention in adult jails separated.

Plus, juvenile court records are sealed, making it easier for young people who do not commit crimes as adults to find jobs, apply for food stamps and public housing and receive financial aid for college. In turn, as productive citizens, they may pump money back into the local economy.

Kinston attorney Mark Herring has represented many 16- and 17-year-olds in Lenoir County Superior Court. Like Heath, he feels trying to reform teenagers in the juvenile setting is much more effective and efficient than punishing them in adult court.

“In a lot of these crimes, the teenagers just have not grown up yet,” said Herring, of the White and Allen law firm. “They are still liable to do the foolish things that kids do and to hold them to the standard of an adult is somewhat unrealistic.”

Herring, the lawyer appointed to represent Pridgen, agreed the law should be limited to misdemeanors and low-level, nonviolent felonies.

“This would be society’s one break for them making a mistake, one last chance for them to get on the right track before it is too far to come back,” he said.

The two argued a fine in adult court does not compare to the stringent level of accountability to which the juvenile systems holds offenders and their parents.

It requires the family to meet regularly with a counselor, and for the child to attend school, get good grades, abide by a curfew and do community service.

With those requirements in place, paired with help from area schools, the number of petitions — or charges — filed against juveniles in Greene, Lenoir and Wayne counties has dropped by 300 in the last two years, said Joe Testino, chief court counselor for the Department of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention’s three-county district.

“With everything, you are going to have a group that just does not make it,” Testino said. “But we see a lot of successes locally. A lot of kids in a lot of families turn around.”

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