Viewpoint

North Carolina alone in harmful policy on youth and courts

North Carolina is the only state in the country with a policy to treat 16- and 17-year-olds as adults in the court system.
North Carolina is the only state in the country with a policy to treat 16- and 17-year-olds as adults in the court system. jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

From Frank H. Crawford, child and family advocate in Charlotte:

The N.C. Legislature has adjourned from its long session of 2015. While many would offer kudos to our elected officials for progress made, it is troubling that one bill has lingered in the legislature for years and again has died due to lack of political will.

HB 399, commonly known as the “Raise the Age” bill, would alter the age of jurisdiction for our state’s juvenile courts. Currently, all 16- and 17-year-olds are automatically treated as adults in the court system, regardless of the offense and circumstances. North Carolina is the very last state in the union to have such an archaic law. HB 399 would have raised the age of jurisdiction for adult court to 18 for individuals who commit misdemeanors.

By inaction, our legislators allow a practice that we know does harm to our state’s children. A growing body of evidence from multiple credible sources shows that by treating 16- and 17-year-olds as adults, we put them in harm’s way as they experience the criminal justice system. Compelling evidence from the Centers for Disease Control points out that brain development in adolescents is far from full maturity at those young ages. Further, states such as Connecticut which have changed their jurisdiction laws have seen sharp decreases in juvenile recidivism and better long term results for youthful offenders.

When incarcerated with adults, youthful offenders are far more likely to experience systemic abuse, become victimized by older offenders, and become more prone to future criminal behavior. The juvenile justice system focuses more on understanding the variables behind a youth’s behavior and determining the best course of action, including incarceration, as a means to rehabilitate the youth, with proven better outcomes.

HB 399 would have allowed youthful offenders charged with misdemeanors to be dealt with in juvenile court, not adult court. Sixteen and 17-year-olds charged with more serious crimes would continue to be dealt with in adult court.

North Carolina is allowing its judicial system to operate in a manner that does harm to our youth. It is time to stop this practice and act on the evidence that is right under our noses. Shame on us as a state, shame of us as a people who treat our children like this.

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