Teenagers who aren’t old enough to vote, own real estate or buy a lottery ticket are routinely arrested on petty misdemeanors and booked into the same North Carolina county jails that house hundreds of adult inmates.
If they don’t beat the rap in court — or are pressured to plead guilty in exchange for a lenient sentence — youthful indiscretions will mar their adult criminal records, hampering future job prospects and setting them up for failure before they even graduate high school.
North Carolina and New York are the only states that automatically charge 16- and 17-year-old offenders as adults. Policy advocates from all sides of the ideological spectrum say it’s high time to change that.
Both the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina and the conservative John Locke Foundation advocate raising the age for adult criminal charges. A committee of the state Commission on the Administration of Law and Justice headed by Mark Martin, chief justice of the N.C. Supreme Court, agrees.
Minors in adult jails and prisons are at higher risk for physical and sexual violence than those in juvenile detention centers. There’s also an elevated suicide risk for young inmates.
Not only should that outrage parents and legislators, it also should frighten state and local governments. They may be held liable in civil court for failing to ensure their charges’ safety.
Evidence shows that adult jurisdiction of minors has no deterrent effect on crime, according to the John Locke Foundation, and that teens charged as adults are less likely to be rehabilitated than those charged through the juvenile court system.
To put it more succinctly: Charging wayward children as adult criminals makes more adult criminals.
That isn’t good public policy. It isn’t being “tough on crime.” It’s a shameful stain on our lawbooks.
Sixteen and 17-year-olds should, in most cases, be charged on juvenile petitions like their younger peers. That allows the state to hold them accountable for their actions with a focus on education and rehabilitation rather than pure punishment.
Raising the age to 18 would help reduce the phenomenon known as the school-to-prison pipeline in which teenagers’ early troubles with the law lead them down a path of lifetime “catch and release” — stints of incarceration followed by failed attempts to become productive members of society, leading to crime and another trip to jail.
The increased presence of school resource officers on campus has done a lot of good, but it’s also spawned unintended consequences. Schoolyard tussles and fights that don’t result in serious injuries used to land kids in detention or get them suspended from school. These days, the kids are hauled off in handcuffs.
We agree with the “raise the age” initiative and urge state lawmakers to adopt it — with a few key caveats.
First, district attorneys should retain the ability to prosecute youthful offenders as adults for violent felonies upon petition to a judge. Teenagers who injure someone with a deadly weapon and those who commit sexual assault, murder and attempted murder shouldn’t have an escape hatch.
Next, juvenile judges must require minors to pay full restitution to the victims of any property crime. State law should provide intervention for youthful offenders that will give them a chance to change their ways, but part and parcel of that is making amends.
Finally, licensed drivers who are 16 and 17 should be subject to the same traffic laws as adult drivers and traffic infractions must carry identical penalties. When you get behind the wheel of a 4,000-pound motor vehicle, you have all the same responsibilities as any other driver on the road. Those not mature enough to face the music can simply delay taking their driving test.
With these exceptions, we believe raising the age for adult criminal charges to be a positive development that would improve outcomes for youthful offenders through a juvenile court system already established for this purpose.
Wilson County’s legislative delegation should make this a top priority when the General Assembly reconvenes this month.