North Carolina has a significant opportunity to get smarter on fighting crime, create an effective juvenile justice system and shore up the workforce by opening doors for more productive, law-abiding citizens.
A trailblazer in many areas, North Carolina is actually falling further and further behind in innovative and cost effective ways to handle and reduce juvenile offenses. The state is one of only two in which minors as young as 16 who commit low-level crimes are treated as adults even for something as minor as stealing a bag of chips.
This system puts those 16-year-olds into the adult justice system rather than with their peers in the juvenile justice system. Pairing impressionable minors with adult criminals consistently hampers positive outcomes for youth. Further, this creates unnecessary costs for taxpayers through increased recidivism rates and fewer youths successfully restarting their lives.
This is neither desirable nor sustainable. Fortunately, a solution is at hand that will mean fewer victims, safer neighborhoods and savings to taxpayers.
State legislators have before them a fresh proposal on returning minors to the juvenile justice system, removing those who did not commit the most serious offenses (those that result in transfer to adult courts and adult prisons) and returning them to the system specifically designed to rehabilitate youths.
There is wide variation across states on where to draw the line on certain felonies committed by 17-year-olds, but North Carolina policymakers should act so that a 16-year-old with a clean record who steals a candy bar is not branded an adult criminal for life.
For most minors who have broken the law, juvenile courts and facilities truly are the best places for them to be held accountable, learn from their mistakes, break the cycle of crime and commit to a law-abiding, productive life. In contrast, when placed in the adult system, youths are more likely to develop into career criminals.
The reasons for this are varied: sometimes its the lack of education, or the programming designed for mature adults, or the safety issues that minors face in adult prisons.
Studies show that placing minors in the adult system is ineffective for most youth. Not only do minors placed in the adult system recidivate at higher rates than those placed in the juvenile system which has supervision and programs specially designed for youths they also are saddled with a lifelong criminal record that permanently forecloses many educational, employment and housing options.
We and our colleagues at Right on Crime want to be clear: Public safety has to be a top priority and young people have to be held accountable. We also want to make sure that the steps we take actually result in a reduction in crime.
This is most effectively achieved through juvenile probation and, when necessary, confinement in juvenile residential facilities.
The juvenile system is also a form of punishment, but one that also emphasizes close supervision, educational and workforce participation, restitution, community service and the successful reintegration of troubled youths into society.
Further, North Carolinas robust system of judicial transfer ensures that the most serious of juvenile offenders could, after consideration by a juvenile judge and district attorney, still be handled by the adult justice system if deemed sufficiently serious or dangerous.
But for the vast majority of the youngest offenders, placement in the adult system results in higher rates of re-arrest, re-conviction, re-incarceration and probation revocations. By returning minors to their proper place, we can stop the cycle of recidivism and save money in the long term by providing appropriate and swift punishment, access to evidence-based treatment and court-ordered parental involvement.
Finally, because todays troubled youths are also part of North Carolinas future workforce, when we do a better job putting them on the right track the future will be brighter for all citizens enabling both the justice system and troubled youths to get the job done.
Marc A. Levin is director of the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a non-profit, free-market research institute based in Austin. He is a leader of the Foundations Right on Crime initiative. Frank Palombo is the former president of the N.C. Association of Chiefs of Police and a recipient of the Order of the Longleaf Pine.