New state, federal laws help juveniles

The gang legislation N.C. lawmakers passed a few days ago is welcome and vital to dealing effectively with rising gang activity, and to steering young people away from criminal activity in the first place. Both are vital to public safety. Lawmakers are wise to see that.

Congress should recognize it too. Last week, the Senate took up reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice Delinquency and Prevention act, a 1974 law that provides for programs to help prevent young people from getting into trouble and to safeguard those who while they're in custody.

Continued federal money for prevention, intervention and treatment programs is critical to reducing the incidence of juvenile crime. The updates make key improvements in the law, including restricting the holding of juveniles in adult facilities before their trials.

This is an important move for the long-term safety and health of communities as well as an aid in protecting and rehabilitating youth offenders. It is also an acknowledgment that a charge is not a verdict, and innocent juveniles are put at risk unnecessarily in adult detention.

Such physical proximity to adult criminals is not in the best interests of the public or the juvenile charged. The updated law requires that juveniles be held in juvenile facility unless a judge specifically orders otherwise after taking into account several factors including mental maturity and the nature of the crime. Good.

The legislation also sets stricter limits on locking up juveniles for “status offenses” – running away, skipping school – offenses not criminalized for adults. In too many jurisdictions, juvenile delinquency is exacerbated by these decisions.

The federal legislation promotes “evidence-based practices” including mentoring and afterschool programs that work in tandem with better law enforcement. Members of Congress should approve these changes.

The new N.C. gang laws underscore the value of both enforcement and prevention. An earlier bill steers state money to communities developing juvenile intervention and prevention programs. Last week's bill completes the major overhaul of state law related to gangs, putting in place stiffer penalties for gang participation and criminalizing gang recruitment.

Lawmakers wisely put in protections for first-time offenders and for those under 16, giving them an opportunity for redemption and no lasting criminal record.

State Sen. Malcolm Graham, of Charlotte and chief sponsor of the bill, said the aim was to get tough on gang leaders and organizers but also to have some sensitivity to first-time offenders. As Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Rodney Monroe rightly notes “a lot of kids go into gangs based on fear and intimidation.” The new law allows police to “correct some of that,” he said.

Prevention, rehabilitation and appropriate and substantive punishment are vital in tackling this issue. Federal and state lawmakers are prudent to include all in provide their juvenile justice strategy.