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From school to prison in North Carolina

A report released Wednesday by Action for Children North Carolina makes another cogent case against North Carolina’s bad law that puts all juveniles over age 15 in adult court regardless of the severity of the offense. Only North Carolina and New York allow such indiscriminate adult prosecution of juveniles.

Bipartisan N.C. legislation to raise the age for juvenile court jurisdiction from 16 to 18 for youth who commit misdemeanors fell short once again this year - despite mounds of evidence that trying such juveniles as adults is costly and doesn’t deter juvenile crime. In fact, 16- and 17-year-olds sentenced as adults have higher re-arrest records than other adult offenders and other juvenile offenders. Changing this policy is estimated to generate millions of dollars in benefits to N.C. taxpayers. In the next legislative session, N.C. lawmakers should make that change. It’s good public policy.

For the get-tough crowd, juveniles could still be tried in adult court. The proposed change would apply to misdemeanors, not felonies. And judges would still have the discretion of trying 16- and 17-year-olds as adults if the offense or their criminal background demands it.

And there’s a more insidious problem with this state’s unwise law. As the report notes, this policy pushes vulnerable teens into the prison system when the juvenile justice system has a good chance to help rehabilitate them. About 26,000 were processed in N.C. adult court in 2009-2010 - 80 percent for misdemeanors.

The broader focus of the report is “the school-to-prison pipeline” in North Carolina that, in the authors’ words, “leaks talent and potential from North Carolina’s future workforce, while limiting the trajectory of many of our students’ lives.” The report goes on to say that “investing in dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline is good policy because it ensures that students become productive and contributing members of society. At a time when businesses face an increasingly competitive global marketplace, it is imperative that every student in North Carolina graduates from high school prepared to pursue college and career success.”

That makes sense. Yet in this state there are several obstacles to that success for many students. Besides the juvenile prosecution policy, the report cited inadequate funding for schools, inequitable and ineffective discipline policies and criminal punishments for minor school infractions.

North Carolina isn’t alone in dealing with these issues. The school-to-prison pipeline is a national concern, and has become a subject of discussion by academics, law enforcers, educators and policymakers. The U.S. Office of Civil Rights has been gathering data on school discipline policies for years that experts say has direct impact on that pipeline. Research shows disparities in how minorities and whites are disciplined in school for the same or similar offenses, putting disproportionate numbers of black and Latino students into the pipeline and into the prison population.

That’s a clear problem in North Carolina, Action for Children North Carolina president and CEO Deborah Bryan told the Public News Service in Raleigh. “Equity in how children are treated in school is one of the issues,” she said. During the 2011-12 school year, N.C. public schools issued 258,000 short-term suspensions and three-fifths of them went to black students, who make up just a quarter of the state's population.

That number of suspensions is high compared to other states. Coupled with 1,609 long-term suspensions, that was the equivalent of one in every 11 students receiving one out-of-school suspension that year. For high school students, it equaled one in every seven students. And the vast majority of N.C. suspensions were for minor infractions, such as disrupting class, tardiness, and dress code violations. Yet many were sent to court for prosecution.

Students do need to be held accountable for their trouble-making, and teachers and other students shouldn’t have to put up with such behavior. But the Action for Children report points to more effective strategies used elsewhere that not only lessen or end the bad behavior but keep students in school and on track to graduate and become productive citizens.

Lawmakers and the rest of us should pay attention to the recommendations in this report. The school-to-prison pipeline can be dismantled. And it won’t be just the kids who benefit if it is.

Email: fflono@charlotteobserver.com.
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