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North Dakota state Rep. Kim Koppelman, R-West Fargo, chairs the House Judiciary Committee Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2019. John Hageman / Forum News Service

North Dakota legislative committee gives thumbs-up to bill raising criminal culpability to age 10

BISMARCK — A North Dakota legislative committee gave its blessing to a proposal raising the age of criminal culpability from 7 to 10 years old Tuesday, Jan. 8.

State law currently considers North Dakotans under 7 years old "incapable” of committing a crime. Children under that age could be referred to social services rather than the juvenile court system, said Cathy Ferderer, the State Court Administrator office's juvenile court coordinator.

Ferderer said raising the culpability age would open avenues for more children to deal with underlying family issues.

“The court really feels that these juveniles would be handled better through the Department of Human Services,” she told the House Judiciary Committee Tuesday. “Typically these are kids that have issues going on at home as well.”

The committee gave the bill a "do pass" recommendation in a 13-1 vote.

In 2017, there were 185 children ages 10 and younger who were referred to juvenile court, Federer said. Most of those cases were diverted to another agency or program without further court action, she said.

Some lawmakers asked whether they should raise the criminal culpability age even higher to align with other policies. Lisa Bjergaard, director of the juvenile services division at the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said state law prevents children under 12 years old from going to the Youth Correctional Center.

“To me, it still seems like 10 is quite young,” said Rep. Shannon Roers Jones, R-Fargo.

Only North Carolina has a lower criminal culpability age than North Dakota, said Tim Curry, the legal director of the National Juvenile Defender Center in Washington, D.C. He noted, however, that some states don't set an age.

Curry said his organization advocates for setting a criminal culpability age at 12 years old, but only California and Massachusetts follow that standard.

"After age 11 is the normative time when cognitive and psychosocial capacity in young people start to develop," he said.

North Dakota law also prevents people from being prosecuted as an adult if the offense occurred before they turned 14 years old, but the bill before lawmakers Tuesday didn’t adjust that threshold. Juveniles are rarely tried as adults in North Dakota, said Aaron Birst, executive director of the North Dakota State's Attorneys' Association.

House Bill 1039 was generated by an interim legislative committee that studied criminal justice reform efforts. Nobody testified against the bill Tuesday.

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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