Point of View

Keep youths out of adult court

April 29, 2013 

In North Carolina, it is possible for a 16-year-old who stole a bag of chips or got into a school yard scuffle to end up with a permanent criminal record that keeps him from joining the military, accessing enough financial aid to attend college or even passing a simple background check to get a low-wage job.

This lack of opportunity leads some down the road to homelessness, struggles with addiction or more serious criminal behaviors.

It’s a scenario that approximately 11,000 teenagers face each year in this state, because North Carolina is one of only two states that place all 16- and 17-year-olds directly into the adult criminal justice system, no matter what level of crime they are charged with.

And each case demonstrates a number of the significant moral and social scientific reasons that lawmakers should pass House Bill 725, “Young Offenders Rehabilitation Act,” which over the next four years raises the age for prosecution of misdemeanors (though not felonies) in the adult system to 18.

We should ask not only which system is more appropriate and morally just, given the differences in juvenile and adult psychology, but also whether there will be a greater social good accomplished by placing a young person in the adult or juvenile systems. We also should ask which alternative is more likely to lead to a promising future for the offender once reparations have been made.

These are not purely abstract philosophical questions; rather, they have been subject to extensive empirical research over the past several years. The moral arguments and social scientific literature lead to the same conclusion: 16- and 17-year-olds charged with misdemeanors should not be automatically placed in the adult criminal justice system.

We should recognize that adolescents are biologically and psychologically different from adults. Because they do not yet have the psychological constitution to make beneficial long-term decisions, they are more likely to be driven by impulse to risk-taking behaviors and to ignore the potential consequences of their actions. They therefore need not only punishment, but also guidance.

This is why juvenile justice was founded on the premise of rehabilitation. Juveniles are in a transitional phase when their behaviors are not yet fixed, and there is a greater chance of intervening to encourage future behaviors more beneficial to society and the offender.

By contrast, researchers have found that youths transferred to the adult system actually receive longer sentences than those between the ages of 18 and 24 who engage in similar offenses and have similar criminal histories, which means they are actually treated more harshly than adults.

When we look at social costs and benefits, studies have demonstrated that rehabilitation reduces recidivism, while procedures commonly used in the adult system have no effect or actually increase recidivism.

Studies also have found that moving juveniles into the adult system either has no effect on violent crime (homicides, robberies, assaults, rapes or arson) or actually leads to higher rates while also costing substantially more.

North Carolina spends approximately $27,700 per inmate per year in the adult correctional system. Effective rehabilitation programs cost between $1,500 and $10,000 per year. Furthermore, though opponents of House Bill 725 argue that moving juveniles out of the adult system would demand exorbitant amounts of money, recent studies of Connecticut (which raised its age in 2007) show that the change has not significantly increased juvenile caseloads and actually cost $12 million less than expected in fiscal year 2010-11.

Looking at an individual’s potential contributions to society, we find that youths who are transferred to the adult system are less likely to complete high school (or higher levels of education), be employed or have stable housing and are actually more likely to recidivate than youths who are not transferred to the adult system.

The majority (70 percent to 90 percent) of adolescent offenders do not continue their offending as adults. However, transfer to the adult system can cut off pro-social opportunities, which can lead to drug dependence or further arrests.

For all these reasons, we urge quick passage of HB 725. North Carolina’s residents and its children deserve better.

Jamie Vaske is an assistant professor of criminology and criminal justice at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee. John F. Whitmire Jr. is associate professor and department head of philosophy and religion at WCU.

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