Point of View

A bipartisan win for NC teens who commit small crimes

May 29, 2014 

Bipartisanship is alive in North Carolina, contrary to widespread reports of its demise. Representatives of all political stripes worked together to pass by a vote of 77 to 39 a major victory for our children.

We now look to the N.C. Senate to send legislation to “Raise the Age” of juvenile jurisdiction to Gov. Pat McCrory’s desk.

What exactly brought politicians and advocates from across the spectrum together? The simple answer is: common sense coupled with a strong belief in our communities and families.

North Carolina is one of only two states that automatically prosecute all 16- and 17-year-old misdemeanants as adults, even for something as minor as stealing a bag of chips. HB725 will raise the age of youth jurisdiction so that 16- and 17-year olds who allegedly commit misdemeanors are handled in the juvenile system. Sixteen and 17-year-olds accused of felonies will remain in the adult system.

Other than joining the mainstream of 48 other states, what is it about this bill that transcended partisanship and attracted such broad support?

Coalition partners such as Justice Fellowship and the N.C. Faith and Freedom Coalition appreciate the restorative nature of the juvenile justice system. Teenagers are prone to mistakes. These mistakes should come with consequences, yes, as well as a path back to a productive life.

N.C. Child has echoed this goal, noting scientific studies that show how different and less-developed the brains of adolescents are compared with grown adults. This means many teens are impetuous, with an underdeveloped sense of responsibility. They are more susceptible to negative influences such as peer pressure.

The juvenile justice system is well-suited to deal with these realities. It includes frequent contact with court officers, rehabilitative services and education. It also involves families – our most powerful institution – in keeping young people on the right path. On the other hand, most youthful offenders in the adult system receive probation, a system that places few demands on offenders, potentially allowing them to commit other, more serious crimes.

Right on Crime – another member of our coalition – has pointed out that youthful offenders who go through the adult system are re-arrested, re-convicted and re-incarcerated at higher rates than other adult offenders. Recidivism is extremely expensive. An analysis by the N.C. Youth Accountability Planning Task Force found that the state could avoid spending more than $50 million a year by raising the age.

Business leaders emphasize that by treating our teens differently from most of the country, we make it harder for them to grow into successful adults. They carry the stigma of an adult criminal record while young people in other states don’t. An adult record means diminished hopes for higher education and promising careers. And that means undue trouble and costs for all of us.

In a brief published by the John Locke Foundation, Marc Levin of Right on Crime concluded: “For the vast majority of 16-year-olds, the appropriate place is the juvenile justice system – appropriate for juveniles, by obtaining better outcomes, and appropriate for North Carolina’s citizens, by creating a safer state for all.”

Sheriff Van Duncan of Buncombe County later concurred, writing, “Our state should strive to become ‘smart on crime,’ saving the futures of thousands of youth and their potential careers – and ultimately saving millions of state dollars.” Statistics from other states show that North Carolina doesn’t gain anything from mixing children with adult offenders. On the contrary, we wind up with young people at risk of becoming recidivists and hobbled by adult criminal record.

During House deliberations, a Republican lawmaker rose to speak of her own son and his teenage follies. She endorsed a system that would teach him and others like him a sound lesson while keeping open the opportunity for them to grow into successful adults. A Democratic lawmaker rose to commend the bill’s long-term savings to taxpayers.

It was perhaps the most heartening discussion at the General Assembly this session, with lawmakers from both sides coming together for the good of our kids. On behalf of thousands of North Carolinians of all political persuasions, here’s hoping this inspiring show of bipartisanship soon happens again in the Senate.

Michelle Hughes is board co-chair of N.C. Child. Fank Palombo is the former president of the N.C. Association of Chiefs of Police and recipient of the Order of the Longleaf Pine.

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