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January 2, 2005 - The Shelby Star (NC)

Bill Would Lighten Youthful Offender Penalties

By Barry Smith

RALEIGH -Should teenagers who run afoul of the law have an opportunity for a new start?

Rep. Alice Bordsen, D-Alamance, hopes so. She plans to introduce a bill when the General Assembly returns later this month to allow non-violent youthful offenders either to get their felony convictions reduced to misdemeanors or have them stricken from the record once they've paid their debt to society.

"Kids can really just get engaged in stupid things," Ms. Bordsen said. "They need some way to fix their life."

The arrest of four dozen students in the Alamance-Burlington School System in February following an undercover drug operation prompted Ms. Bordsen to initiate the proposal. That's the drug sweep in which the state's all-time leading high school basketball scorer, Jameson Curry, pleaded guilty to drug charges. After the guilty plea, Curry lost his basketball scholarship to the University of North Carolina.

Ms. Bordsen said that her proposal wouldn't be available to repeat or violent offenders.

"This is directed toward first-time, youthful, non-violent felons," she said.

It would apply to 16-year-olds, 17-year-olds and possibly 18-year-olds.

Cleveland County District Attorney Bill Young said he would have to see the details of the proposal to respond fully.

"I would like to know how the term 'non-violent' crime is defined," Young told The Star.

He said most of the crimes he sees among that age range are breaking and entering, larceny and the possession or sale of drugs.

"If those are included, then I would be opposed," Young added.

"What I'm proposing is that after these young people have completed their whole sentence, probation, restitution or the time, then they can apply to have their record expunged or sealed or reduced to a misdemeanor," Ms. Bordsen said.

She said she wants to bring in district attorneys, law enforcement agencies and the Department of Correction to review the proposal and work out the best legislation. She said she has support from school officials, law enforcement and the district attorney in Alamance County.

Some state officials say they'd like to know more about the proposal.

"We're always ready to listen to legislators and hear what they have to say," said Noelle Talley, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Roy Cooper.

Keith Acree, a spokesman for the Department of Correction, said such a proposal probably would have no effect on the department since it would not change the offender's penalty.

"It's just changing what their record says," Acree said. "It affects those individuals who have to live with that record for the rest of their lives."

Ms. Bordsen had hoped that the Legislative Research Commission, an organization that studies changes to state laws while the General Assembly is not in session, would take up the issue in the interim between the closing of the 2004 short session in July and the opening of the 2005 regular session. But that has not happened.

The commission hasn't even met.

Ms. Bordsen said that she would push hard for the change next year.

She said the change would be aired out by people, such as district attorneys and police, who deal with youthful criminal offenders on a daily basis.

Ms. Bordsen said she only wants the opportunity to apply to non-violent offenders. It would not be available for people convicted of assault or who use a weapon when committing a crime.

Such a change could help teenagers get their lives back in order, she said.

"They don't have a very good long-range perspective," Ms. Bordsen said of such teenagers who have gotten into trouble. Without an opportunity to clear a felony off of their record, she says that some may just say, "Why bother?"

Star reporter Amelia Townsend contributed to this story.

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