by Bob SImmons, executive director

In my 30 years working with and advocating for children, one thing is clear  children are like sponges soaking in what they see and experience.  When our political discussions include so much rhetoric that appears to devalue many of our neighbors, particularly those who are the most vulnerable, I grow concerned about what children are learning.

However, there was a breath of fresh air from Raleigh last week.  A bipartisan group of legislators introduced HB 280, the Juvenile Justice Reinvestment Act. This legislation is a great example of what we can achieve when we put people above politics.

The bill corrects a long established injustice for the children of North Carolina. For nearly a century, North Carolina has treated 16- and 17-year-olds as adults when they are charged with a crime — any crime from the lowest misdemeanor to the highest felony. It’s an outdated practice that persists only in North Carolina and New York. Almost every other state has raised the age of juvenile jurisdiction to 17. That’s exactly what HB 280 does, with exceptions for the five highest felony classes.

At Council for Children’s Rights, we see children of all ages who need different kinds of support. Children who have made mistakes and interacted with police deserve a chance to learn to find a better path forward to a brighter future. The juvenile court system helps children mature and build skills that will enable them grow into successful adults. That’s something the adult criminal system doesn’t provide.

The ultimate goal for both the adult criminal system and the juvenile justice system is to create safe communities. Raising the age of juvenile jurisdiction does just that. Children processed through the adult criminal system are more than twice as likely to reoffend than those served by the juvenile system. Simply put: forcing children into the adult criminal system makes it far more likely for them to become adult criminals.

Now is the time for North Carolina to acknowledge what research in brain science has already confirmed – adolescents are children. Prosecuting children as adults doesn’t work for their safety and it doesn’t work for public safety.

Council for Children’s Rights supports HB 280 to Raise the Age because it is the right thing to do for our children and for our communities. The goals of juvenile court to rehabilitate youth are developmentally-appropriate and offer the best opportunity for redirecting young lives. A permanent adult criminal record all too often unfairly and negatively impacts future opportunities and success.  Children charged as adults have more trouble finding jobs, completing their education, entering the military, and locating stable housing.

We have an opportunity to right a wrong and set a positive example for our youth. Let’s show them what it looks like when adults put children, families, and communities above politics by working together to find real policy solutions.

Bob Simmons is the executive director of Council for Children’s Rights and a member of the NC Raise the Age coalition.

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