North Carolina is one of only two states left in the country that continues to treat 16- and 17-year -olds as adults in the criminal justice system — without exception. It’s a law that dates back to 1919, and in the intervening 97 years, criminal justice experts, child psychologists, neuroscientists and others have compiled a mountain of data that tells us just how wrong this policy is.
Under our current system, any 16- or 17-year-old who makes one bad decision and is charged with even the most minor offense — like stealing a candy bar — is housed in an adult jail, where they face an increased risk of suicide and sexual assault. They are also branded with a 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 with youth in other states.
Despite all the evidence, state lawmakers have yet to change the law, although over the last several years there has been increasing momentum to get it done. In 2014, the North Carolina House of Representatives approved — with overwhelming bipartisan support — a bill that would have raised the age of jurisdiction for misdemeanor crimes. But the Senate failed to take it up, and here we are more than two years later with the same archaic law.
Thankfully, there is reason to believe that 2017 could be the year that North Carolina finally adopts the evidence-based, commonsense, cost-saving policy of treating young people under the age of 18 like the juveniles that they are in the criminal justice system.
Over the last several months, the North Carolina Commission on the Administration of Law and Justice — convened by Chief Justice Mark Martin to examine many facets of the court system and make recommendations for change — has been examining the issue of juvenile jurisdiction. A variety of participants, including judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys and law enforcement officers, have come together to find common ground, and recently released an interim report recommending that North Carolina direct 16- and 17-year-old offenders to the juvenile justice system.
We know a lot more about adolescent brains than we did in 1919. We know that juveniles engage in more risk-taking behavior without a real understanding of the consequences, and that they are more impulsive and more responsive to peer influence. We also know that when kids go through the juvenile system instead of the adult system, they are significantly less likely to commit another crime in the future. The juvenile system offers rehabilitation rather than strictly punishment and allows kids to right their wrongs without saddling them with a lifetime of collateral consequences.
Until recently, South Carolina was one of a handful of states in the country that treated 16-year-olds as juveniles but funneled 17-year-olds into the adult system. Earlier this year, the South Carolina legislature voted unanimously to raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction to include 17-year-olds. And South Carolina wasn’t the only state to raise the age in 2016: Louisiana made it happen too.
There are more people and more organizations than ever before who are willing to take a stand and say that North Carolina must raise the age. People who have historically been on opposing sides of this issue are coming together and agreeing that the time has come. Additionally, advocates, parents, and youth who have been impacted by the current law have spoken passionately about the urgent need to raise the age at recent public forums around the state. People are engaged, motivated, and organizing to act.
A candy bar shouldn’t cost a kid his future — or taxpayers a lifetime of support. It’s time to raise the age.
Susanna Birdsong is policy counsel at the ACLU of North Carolina.