William Lassiter, North Carolina’s deputy commissioner of juvenile justice, made the case for raising the age at which a youngster can be charged as an adult with reason, facts and common sense in a recent speech at the John Locke Foundation. His recommendations, included in legislation that will go before lawmakers this year, are sound and rooted not in speculation but statistics and the findings of a cross-section of experts.
He also noted that if the state raises the age at which people can enter the criminal justice system as adults to 18, it will put North Carolina in the mainstream of what other states have done. North Carolina and New York are the only states that haven’t raised the age since 1919. He said that laws also have curbed the urge of some young people to act like adults — there now are limits on the age at which it is legal to marry, to buy cigarettes and alchohol.
Importantly, Lassiter said under the proposal that 16- and 17-year-olds charged with violent felonies would be excluded from the change.
Putting those 16- and 17-year-olds in the adult justice system sets them on a pattern likely to keep them in and out of that system. That obviously has a long-term bad effect on them and on society itself. A young person who might have been saved from such a pattern is lost forever.
Consider, Lassiter said, that scientists have repeatedly said the brain is not fully developed in people that age, who tend to respond to situations on impulse, which leads to bad decisions that can put them and others at risk. Do we want their brains to fully develop with exposure to older criminals, or under the watch of adults who can try to shape them in positive ways?
Simple statistics support the law: 44 percent of “juvenile complaints,” Lassiter said, come from schools reporting “disorderly conduct.” Said Lassiter: “You and I, when we acted out in class, did we go to the district attorney’s office?”
To their credit, those who run the justice system have taken steps that prove the worthiness of this change. There are programs to help kids without locking them up, and the use of electronic monitoring devices. As a result, Lassiter said, the adolescent crime rate has dropped dramatically.
It is in neither society’s interest nor that of young people to set them up in their mid-teens to be thrown away, or at high risk of it. Raising the age isn’t just about compassion; it’s about making everyone safer by interrupting a pattern of behavior likely only to get worse and then changing that pattern to make it positive and productive. This proposal deserves support from all points on the political spectrum.