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Bill could send more minors to adult jails

Any N.C. legislator seriously favoring the part of House Bill 217 giving prosecutors authority to send children as young as 13 to adult criminal court should see last week’s “Rock Center” on NBC. What happens to many juveniles in the adult criminal justice system was on stark display.

In jails and prisons intended for adults, juveniles are at great risk of harm – including sexual assault. And as the “Rock Center” report highlighted, even when officials try to protect minors from the adults – separating the youths from older inmates by placing them in solitary confinement – the consequences are often mentally damaging and sometimes deadly. Youngsters in adult facilities are 36 times more likely to commit suicide than those in youth detention centers, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports.

That reality is part of what has driven most states to set the age that young people are automatically treated as adults in the justice system at 18. North Carolina, unfortunately, remains one of two – the other is New York – that sets the age at 16.

Wisely, though, a bipartisan group of N.C. lawmakers had been working to change that. Last year, a bill was introduced that would incrementally raise the age from 16 to 18 that young people are automatically tried as adults for misdemeanors. The bill stalled in a Senate appropriations committee but was moved to a Legislative Research Committee to review the steps needed to implement the policy change. That was considered a good sign.

So we read with dismay about a bill filed this month that’s a backward step. The bill gives prosecutors the discretion to transfer to adult court the cases of 13-, 14-, and 15-year-olds charged with certain felonies. Current law leaves that discretion to judges – and for good reason. Judges are neutral arbiters in court cases; prosecutors by the very nature of their jobs are not.

Right now, 90 percent of the children serving time in adult jails and prisons nationwide are not there for the most serious crimes. They’re not getting the rehabilitative services that can help them when they get out and lessen the chances of their re-arrest. Those adult facilities are warehouses for future criminals, and sometimes torture chambers for teens whose lack of judgment and emotional development led them to make bad decisions.

Two judges last week publicly decried the proposed change. Writing in the (Raleigh) News & Observer, Beth S. Dixon, the District Court judge for N.C. Judicial District 19 C, and Marcia H. Morey, the Chief District Court judge of the 14th Judicial District, said: “This proposal would send more children into the adult criminal justice system when study after study has shown that this path substantially increases the likelihood that a youth will reoffend... This proposal is a bad return on investment. When more youths end up in the adult criminal justice system, taxpayers pay more. Though the juvenile justice system, by providing rehabilitative services and other programs, requires higher front-end costs, the long-term consequences of using the adult system are far greater....”

Juveniles should be held accountable for their crimes. The N.C. bill considered last year didn’t go easy on minors who committed serious crimes. Judges still had the discretion to transfer to adult court cases involving felonies by those 13 and younger and other cases involving 16- and 17-year-olds.

Yet the judgment deficit in young people is real. That’s why states passed laws raising the drinking age to 21 and restricting teen drivers. It’s a reason North Carolina should raise the age it automatically tries juveniles as adults too. It is certainly a reason N.C. lawmakers should reject any bill that could send more 13-year-olds into the adult system.

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