North Carolina may be “first in flight,” but our state is also dangerously close to being last in the nation in how we treat young people who end up in the criminal justice system.

Under a nearly 100-year-old law, North Carolina remains one of only two states in the nation (the other is New York) that still automatically sends any 16 or 17 year old charged with a crime – no matter how minor the offense – to the adult criminal justice system.
As much as they may think otherwise, 16 and 17 year olds are not adults. We know from our own experience and a growing body of research that a youth’s ability to make sound, responsible decisions is not fully developed. For decades our public policy has acknowledged this very basic fact: children under the age of 18 are not allowed to smoke, vote, or join the armed services, because we have decided as a society that important and potentially life-changing decisions should not be made during one’s youth.

But North Carolina’s policy of automatically charging these same adolescents as adults, housing them in adult jails, and often branding them with lifelong adult criminal records—for crimes as minor as stealing a candy bar – does not take this reality into account and in the process it has damaged countless lives.

 

As much as they may think otherwise, 16 and 17 year olds are not adults. We know from our own experience and a growing body of research that a youth’s ability to make sound, responsible decisions is not fully developed. For decades our public policy has acknowledged this very basic fact: children under the age of 18 are not allowed to smoke, vote, or join the armed services, because we have decided as a society that important and potentially life-changing decisions should not be made during one’s youth.

Young people in adult jails are more likely to commit suicide and be victims of sexual assault. They are not given access to mental health, educational, and other programs available in the juvenile justice system that could help them turn their life around. And they are saddled with an adult criminal record that will make it harder for them to go to college, find a job, and contribute to society — putting North Carolina’s young people at a competitive disadvantage compared to youth in other states.

It is time for North Carolina to join the vast majority of other states around the country and raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction to 18. After years of study and debate, a commission put together by North Carolina Chief Justice Mark Martin is now recommending that the state raise the age for all offenses, with the notable exception of violent felonies. (A Gazette editorial earlier this week incorrectly stated that the proposed changes would apply to all crimes.)

These recommendations are supported by criminal justice experts, law enforcement officials, child psychologists, neuroscientists, parents, and others. At an August 25 public hearing in Charlotte on these issues, I joined children’s advocates, judges, public defenders, and community members in backing these recommendations and calling on our state to finally do the right thing and raise the age.

Raising the age gives troubled children a chance to receive the services they need to stay in school, to stay out of jail, and to reach a brighter future. Raising the age will also enhance public safety and save money by reducing recidivism and incarceration.

Bob Simmons is the Executive Director of Council for Children’s Rights Staff-Dir-Bob-Simmons

 

This editorial was first printed in the Gaston Gazette under the title Raising the age in adult court gives troubled youth a chance to receive services on September 2, 2016.

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