The students sitting in the high school’s civic class had as much energy as dead batteries.
After the teacher introduced me I asked, “So what difference does it make it you are a 15 year-old or 16 year-old in North Carolina?”
One student rolled his eyes and said, “Duh, a year.”
“Brilliant,” I said, “but in terms of the law, what’s the difference?”
I tried again. “How old do you have to be to get criminally charged as an adult in North Carolina?”
“18,” a student said.
Across the room, a head rose from his desk, “No, dude. It’s 16. Believe me, I know.”
Snickering erupted. “Yo, Bro, what’d you do?”
Thus began our classroom dialog on how criminal laws directly impact their lives.
I asked if anyone had heard the phrase, ‘school to prison pipeline’. A student offered, “Yeah, you get charged with a fight at school and eventually you wind up in prison.”
“Almost,” I answered. “It refers to kids being suspended from school for misbehavior and funneled into the juvenile and criminal justice systems despite the fact they are still minors, under the age of 18. In fact, North Carolina has the harshest laws in the country when it comes to criminalizing teenagers. On your 16th birthday, only in this State, you are charged as if you were adult in the criminal system, although for every other law, you are a ‘minor’. You can’t vote, drink, enlist in the military or even get a library card without your parent’s signature.”
One student raised her hand. “So if I lived in Virginia or Georgia and I’m 16, and I steal a candy bar or have a bag of weed, I’m not in trouble?”
“No, you could be in trouble,” I answered “but not as an adult. Your case would be in juvenile court.”
Another student groaned, “Juvey court is worse.”
I agreed in a way it’s true. Juvenile court involves supervision by court counselors and mandatory parental involvement. School attendance is monitored, drug testing is required. Frequent court reviews are held. This is more “restorative” justice.
“But what if a kid commits a really bad crime like a robbery or murder?”
I explained that our laws currently allow for a judge to transfer violent crimes to the adult system for kids as young as 13 years-old.
A student’s hand shot up. “So, what happens in the adult system?”
I told them, that it all depended on whether they had a prior record and how serious the crime is. There can be jail time, probation and court costs, attorney fees, probation supervision fees, all can add up to $1000.
But, more than that, I warned: A criminal charge is a public record which can impact your chances for getting a job or receiving financial aid for college. It will change your life.
In Durham alone, approximately 500 young people get their first criminal charge when they are 16 and 17 years old.
I told the students about a 16 year old who was charged with littering on the American Tobacco trail. An officer saw her throw a plastic bottle. He wrote her a citation. When she didn’t come to court, she was arrested at school.
“She got arrested for littering?”
I answered, no she got arrested for not coming to court. Court appearances are mandatory, even for the most minor offense.
“That’s not right,” a student blurted out. “I’ll bet she was black. Do officers have any choice who they charge?”
I explained that officers do have discretion to charge teenagers with minor offenses and it is true that minorities get disproportionately charged for similar offenses. But, in Durham, officers can refer first time offenders to a misdemeanor diversion program to keep their records clean. They have to attend a court session and do some community service, but no charge will be filed unless the teenager does not participate.
“Do all officers divert charges for 16 and 17 year-olds?”, I was asked.
“Unfortunately not. As long as the law allows officers to charge kids, it’s up to what the officer decides is the right thing to do.”
One student asked, “So you are a judge. Why can’t you just throw out dumb cases especially if minority youth are being targeted?”
It was a good question. So much for being an ‘all powerful judge’. As long as North Carolina law mandates that 16 year-olds are adults, judges are bound by the law. Even a judge cannot throw out a case. It’s up to the state legislature to raise the age to 18.
I told the class that since the 1980’s numerous attempts have been made to persuade lawmakers to raise the age: That youth do much better in the juvenile system; Indelible harm can result from criminal charges; Neuroscience has proven adolescent brain development is not complete until the age of 25. That North Carolina laws should not unforgivingly punish her own teenagers when every other state considers these youth to be juveniles.
One student spoke up, “Kids lives matter.”
Yes, they do.
Marcia Morey is the chief district court judge in Durham County. She can be reached at Marciahmorey@gmail.com.