Emily, a white, 16-year-old private school student from a middle-class family, takes another student’s iPod. When the theft is revealed, school administrators convene a meeting with Emily and her parents. Her parents agree to pay for a replacement. Emily is ordered to apologize and is banned from the soccer team. All agree that she has learned her lesson.
David, an African-American, 16-year-old public school student from a low-income family, takes another student’s iPod. When the theft is revealed, school administrators recommend him for long-term suspension and contact the school police officer, who brings charges in adult criminal court. David pleads guilty, receives probation and is ordered to pay restitution for the phone, as well as over a hundred dollars of court costs. As lawyers who represent youths in schools and juvenile and criminal courts, we frequently see cases like David’s.
Multiple harms befall young people prosecuted in the adult system, who are, like David, disproportionately youths of color from low-wealth families. Even when cases are dismissed, records of arrest remain. They’ll have to disclose these records on employment, college and financial aid applications. Sixteen- and 17-year-olds are denied developmentally appropriate, rehabilitative services available in the juvenile justice system, thereby increasing their likelihood of recidivism. Youth held in adult jails and prisons are more likely to commit suicide and be victims of assault, including rape, than youth in juvenile facilities.
North Carolina is the only state that automatically treats all 16- and 17-year-olds as adults when charged with criminal offenses. The vast majority of states extend juvenile court jurisdiction up to age 18. Over the last two decades, states have consistently moved to increase their maximum ages. North Carolina has stubbornly remained behind the curve.
Along with making us out of step with the rest of the country, North Carolina’s jurisdictional cut-off flies in the face of neuroscience and social science evidence showing that, compared with adults, young people are more impulsive and susceptible to peer pressure and have less well-developed personalities and decision-making abilities. In short, as the U.S. Supreme Court has found three times over the last 12 years, youths are categorically less culpable than adults.
Fortunately, a bipartisan group of lawmakers has introduced the Young Offenders Rehabilitation Act,
which aims to rectify this injustice. HB 399 would increase the age for misdemeanors to 16 by 2020 and to 17 by 2021 and create a Juvenile Justice Advisory Committee to oversee the changes. The law would bring us significantly closer to being in step with the rest of the nation. It also would comport with basic notions of fairness, save money by decreasing recidivism and ultimately better protect public safety. These clear justifications are no doubt why the bill is supported by the General Assembly’s Youth Accountability Task Force, N.C. Department of Public Safety leaders and the John Locke Foundation.
Unfortunately, our state’s Sheriffs’ Association and Conference of District Attorneys oppose this common-sense bill.
Why? Publicly, they claim that raising the age would require too many resources. Andrew Murray, the president-elect of the conference, recently said, “Handling a misdemeanor in regular adult court only takes several minutes, but in juvenile court it takes an hour, on average.” Peg Dorer, the director of the N.C. Conference of District Attorneys, has complained, “A case that currently takes three minutes in adult court will take 54 minutes in juvenile court. This will completely overwhelm our system.”
It’s difficult to decide what’s more shocking – the miniscule amount of time it takes to dispense with adult defendants or that community leaders believe that an hour is too much time for crucial decisions that could bring long-term negative consequences to a child. These claims ignore both that any short-term increase in cost would be offset by long-term savings and that the strain on resources could be eliminated entirely if the General Assembly were to act responsibly and stop cutting taxes for corporations and the wealthiest North Carolinians.
Two other forces are also likely at play. Elected law enforcement officials don’t want to appear “soft on crime,” even if it means supporting ineffective and unjust policies. Second, because the age of juvenile court jurisdiction predominantly and disproportionately affects African-American youths from low-wealth communities, it is easy for some public officials to ignore the law’s negative impacts.
It’s time to bring North Carolina into the 21st century. It’s time to raise the age.
Jason Langberg and Barbara Fedders are members of the Youth Justice North Carolina advisory board.