North Carolina lawmakers should reject House Bill 217, which would give prosecutors authority to send children as young as 13 to adult criminal court.
Research shows that trying youths in adult criminal court doesn’t decrease crime. In fact, it does just the opposite. 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. These studies have been produced by a diverse group of experts: criminologists, attorneys and medical professionals.
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, including more crimes and expenses from repeatedly cycling young offenders through it.
This legislation would expose more children to the dangers of adult jails and prisons, and to serious negative and life-long consequences. Children could be placed in adult jails pre-trial or in adult prisons if convicted. Inside these facilities, they are the population most at risk for sexual assault, physical abuse and suicide.
Youths tried in adult criminal courts also can lose access to student financial aid and their right to vote. This makes it more difficult for them to obtain an education, find and hold a job, and participate in the democratic process. Many public-housing authorities deny eligibility for federal housing assistance based on an arrest, regardless of whether it led to a conviction. And most states allow employers to deny jobs to people with adult criminal records, regardless of the age at conviction or how minor the offense.
According to public opinion research, most people reject policies contained in HB 217. The public believes that children should have a hearing before a judge, whom they consider to be a neutral decision-maker, rather than a prosecutor. The public strongly favors having juvenile court judges make determinations on a case-by-case basis rather than automatic prosecution in adult criminal court, according to the most recent poll by GBA Strategies. And the public resoundingly rejects placing youths in adult jails and prisons, which would happen more often under this bill.
States are moving away from policies that place children in the adult criminal justice system. A recent report released by the National Conference of State Legislatures showed that, in the past decade, states have passed laws to reduce the prosecution of children in adult criminal court and to remove children from adult jails and prisons. These reforms have been championed by Republican and Democratic lawmakers and governors in all regions of the country.
Instead of sending more children to adult criminal court, which HB 217 would most surely do, North Carolina should do the reverse by joining with the rest of the states in recognizing the developmental differences between children and adults and embracing research-based approaches that have proven to reduce juvenile crime.
Beth S. Dixon is the District Court judge for NC Judicial District 19 C, and Marcia H. Morey is the Chief District Court judge of the 14th Judicial District.