I listened to Gov. Pat McCrory’s State of the State speech. Hooray for wanting to improve the economy, raise teacher pay and find more efficiency in state government. The General Assembly warmly applauded issues of job creation, veteran benefits, puppy mills and cleaner fountains outside the government office buildings.
But he forgot one big issue: North Carolina’s children.
Soon North Carolina will be the only state in the country to arrest or cite 16- and 17-year-olds as adults in the criminal system. Only in the North Carolina will a 16-year-old who tosses a gum wrapper on school grounds, plays music too loudly, shoplifts a candy bar or shoves someone at school – all impulsive, youthful acts – walk out of court with an indelible criminal record.
Last year 21,000 North Carolina teenagers got their first misdemeanor charge.
The public record of criminal charges on 16-year-olds, even if they are not guilty, slams doors for first-time employment prospects, financial aid, housing and military service. All the while these same kids are too young to vote, buy a beer or get a library card without a parent’s signature.
What this issue is about is giving kids a chance. It is insisting that all youth be treated fairly, the same as any of us would want our children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews to be treated. It is saying to our 16- and 17-year-olds who commit minor offenses that we recognize your age. That North Carolina must conform to national standards and the laws in 48 other states. That the research on adolescent brain development and recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions all recognize that, in our criminal law system, a young person’s age does matter, and it must mandate that minors are treated as minors for nonviolent indiscretions.
This issue has been debated for decades. Other states have moved to raise the age of delinquency to 18 for nonviolent offenses because it is the right thing to do: for crime prevention, for child protection, for the future of our youth. It is the moral imperative.
Every day, as a judge, I see kids sent down the river when they get a criminal conviction on a minor, misdemeanor offense. If there is a drug problem, or if there is a misdemeanor larceny or a simple affray, we need to take the time to work with these kids to prevent these behaviors in the future rather than slap them with court costs, fines and a suspended jail sentence, which teaches them nothing about changing their behavior.
It is time to raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction to 18 for nonviolent, misdemeanor offenders. We must work with these children in the juvenile justice system and not brand them as criminals before they can even vote or get a library card.
Marcia Morey is chief district court judge of the 14th Judicial District in Durham.