A lot of North Carolinians, including many who serve in the General Assembly, like to point at benighted practices in other Southern states as evidence that ours is a more enlightened place. States like Mississippi or Arkansas are sometimes the target of Tar Heel ridicule.
But in the matter of juvenile justice, we are the bottom feeders, soon to be the sole cellar dweller, the last remaining state that tries 16- and 17-year-old criminal offenders in the adult court system. New York was our last remaining peer in that remnant of, at best, the early 20th century. In April, New York lawmakers voted to phase out the practice. We hope this state follows suit quickly.
Most North Carolina legislators have known for years that trying kids in adult criminal court is wrong. Anyone who has survived parenting a teenager knows the truth of a biological fact of science: A teenager’s brain isn’t fully developed yet. Specifically, the part of the brain that can assess the consequences of various actions isn’t quite up to the job. Teenagers do things impulsively and sometimes those things are illegal. That might mean trying a dangerous drug or shoplifting a watch or taking a neighbor’s car for an unauthorized joy ride. In most cases, the kids get caught and it’s the last such adventure of their young lives. They grow up to be responsible adults.
But because of the way our criminal justice system is built, they grow up to be an adult with a criminal record. That can make it really hard for them when they apply for a job, try to get financial aid for college or even join the military.
That criminal record means they’re much more likely to make a repeat appearance in a courtroom – especially if they’re sent away for incarceration in an adult prison, better known as the advanced school for crime. Yes, it’s that easy to create a career criminal. And we shouldn’t let it happen. By the very nature of its name, our corrections system should be doing better than that.
State Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Martin, a Republican, organized a commission to study juvenile justice and it strongly recommended raising the minimum age for trying young offenders as adults, at least in the case of misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies. Martin went to the General Assembly on Monday to urge passage of “raise the age” legislation that would treat 16- and 17-year-olds as juveniles and leave their criminal records sealed. Similar legislation has failed in the past because lawmakers feared they wouldn’t look tough enough on crime.
Fortunately, there’s a growing recognition that aggressive prosecution and long sentences aren’t the answer to cutting crime, and that this country’s massive reliance on incarceration has been an expensive failure. For many offenders – especially young ones – rehab is a better answer.
A coalition of politicians and law-enforcement groups – including the N.C. Sheriffs Association – is backing a “raise the age” bill. So is Gov. Roy Cooper, who was this state’s longtime attorney general. Sixteen- and 17-year-olds are still kids and should be treated that way in our juvenile courts. The rest of the country has already figured that out.
It’s our turn, isn’t it?