By Mitchell Feld

As of December, a number of new laws took effect in North Carolina that impact children involved in juvenile court.  While the General Assembly made some beneficial changes, our legislators failed again to raise the minimum age for prosecution as an adult to age 18.

MitchBut let’s start with the good news:  first among the beneficial changes is a new law that increases, from 14 to 16, the age when a child in custody can waive the right to have a parent, guardian, or attorney present during police interrogation.  This change recognizes the incapacity of children under 16 to grasp their legal situation and protects them against forfeiting their constitutional rights in the absence of an adult who can provide advice and guidance.

Second, children under the age of 10 can no longer be restrained unless it is “reasonably necessary for the safety of the officer, authorized person, or the juvenile.”  Yes, children are shackled, but this change restricts that practice and prohibits the shackling of younger children without a legitimate safety concern.  This change reinforces the therapeutic and rehabilitative emphasis of juvenile court and reduces the imposition of unnecessary criminal stigma.

Third, judges are now required to advise children who accept responsibility for a delinquent act that they may have the option to expunge their juvenile record.  Most children in juvenile court do not enter the system more than once.  This information provides the children and their families knowledge and comfort that their encounter with the system will not necessarily lead to long-term collateral consequences.  If a child who makes a youthful mistake has the option to expunge his/her juvenile record, the child has a greater chance for long-term success. This law guarantees that children and families are aware of this opportunity and its important consequences for their future.

North Carolina remains one of only two states that automatically treat all 16- and 17-year-old children as adults for all criminal charges.  New York is the other state, and they are expected to pass a law this year raising the age to 18.

In the 2014 session of the General Assembly, a “Raise the Age” bill passed the House before being kept off the floor of the Senate.  The bill would have raised the age for adult prosecution on misdemeanors to 18.  Representative Marilyn Avila’s (R – Wake County) reintroduction of the bill in 2015 did not even get out of the House.

The science of brain development and mental capacity is clear that children under 18 cannot form the same intent as an adult.  We should give children the benefit of treatment through the juvenile system rather than punishment in the adult system.  While Rep. Avila’s bill is a step in the right direction, the science supports treating all children as children regardless of whether they are charged with a misdemeanor or a felony.  The holistic and rehabilitative practice of juvenile court reduces recidivism and makes it more likely that a child will avoid involvement in the adult criminal system, reducing both the long-term risks to the child and the long-term costs to society.

Raise the Age is not the only legislation that needs to move forward in 2016.  The General Assembly also needs to allocate additional resources to increase high quality mental health treatment for children.  Currently, there is an acute shortage of high quality treatment to address the needs of children in our community regardless of socioeconomic or insurance status.

In addition, there is a need to increase resources and services for foster families so children can thrive in alternative placements and make successful transitions back home.

Now is the time for the General Assembly to equip the juvenile justice system with the appropriate programs and reforms that can increase the success rates of the children served today and those it will serve when Raise the Age becomes law.  The other 48 states that have raised the age of juvenile court jurisdiction have demonstrated that passing these types of legislative reforms offer some of the best long-term investments that a state can make in its juvenile system and in changing the future of children.

The term “at risk” does not apply simply to one group of children.  All children are at risk if they do not receive the necessary support.  The time is now to make sure we help all children.

January 2016
Mitchell Feld is a staff attorney and director of the Council’s Children’s Defense Team.

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