It was a welcome sight to see state Supreme Court Justice Mark Martin at the General Assembly Monday advocating on behalf of juvenile defendants accused of nonviolent crimes. Martin is backing legislation that will put an end to North Carolina’s cruel – and almost unique – practice of treating teenagers as adults in criminal courts.
New York, the only other state to try juveniles as adults, voted to end the practice starting in 2019. Martin, backed by court and education officials, says it’s now North Carolina’s turn to show compassion and offer a second chance to teenagers who get in criminal trouble. Often the charges are not serious. Ninety-seven percent of convictions of 16- and 17-year-olds in 2014 were for misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies. But a criminal conviction can do serious harm to a teenager’s chances in life.
“What we’re proposing is a very modest revision of our law,” Martin said in a news conference at the Legislative Building. “It is simply: When our teenagers are accused of nonviolent offenses that they are not automatically tried in adult court.”
Martin and other backers of the “raise the age” change make strong arguments on its behalf. Studies have shown that teenagers do not have fully developed capacity for judgment, and experience has shown that punishing them like adults makes it more likely they will end up in court again. Indeed, 11 of North Carolina’s 100 counties already divert most defendants 17 and younger to juvenile courts. House Bill 280 would make that the practice statewide. Lawmakers should listen to the state’s top judge and pass it.