We all know that teenagers make mistakes. Their brains are still developing, and they don’t have the decision-making skills of adults. As public defenders, we see countless cases every year involving still-maturing 16- and 17-year-olds who make one stupid decision and end up entangled in our criminal justice system.
But in North Carolina, unlike 48 states, when these young people are arrested, they aren’t sent to a juvenile court focused on rehabilitation. Instead, they’re charged as adults, housed in adult jails, and – if convicted – sentenced and branded as adult offenders. In North Carolina, even a misdemeanor as petty as stealing a candy bar could saddle a 16-year-old with a record that will impede the ability to go to college, find a job and contribute to society in many ways.
This state law, unchanged for nearly 100 years, is outdated, untenable and deeply destructive for many young people across North Carolina. As public defenders who seek to identify and implement genuine solutions to criminal behavior and recidivism, we believe it’s time for North Carolina to raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction so that 16- and 17-year-olds are not automatically charged as adults, regardless of the offense, and have a chance to correct course.
A bipartisan proposal in the state House, HB 399, would alleviate much of the situation by placing all 16- and 17-year-olds charged with misdemeanors into the juvenile justice system by 2021. The vast majority of youthful offenders who wind up in court or jail are charged with misdemeanors.
When young people are placed in adult jails and facilities, they lose nearly all access to the tools they need to turn their lives around. A 2012 report from the John Locke Foundation found that there is no available program in adult facilities for young people to earn a high school diploma. Forty percent of jails have no educational services, and only 56 percent of prisons offer vocational education, according to the report.
Conversely, North Carolina’s juvenile justice system offers many alternatives for youthful offenders that include mentoring, educational programs, vocational training and family intervention. According to a 2011 cost-benefit analysis by the VERA Institute for Justice, referring 16- and 17-year-olds to such a support-based system would “likely reduce recidivism for that population.”
Programs that would help youthful offenders complete their educations
and turn their lives around would be a vast improvement over the current situation. Right now, when 16- and 17-year-olds in North Carolina receive a much harsher adult criminal conviction, they are branded with a record that will make them unemployable to many, disqualify them for federal financial aid and military service, and make it harder for North Carolina’s future workers to compete with their peers in other states.
“We punish North Carolina kids twice,” former New Bern Police Chief Frank Palumbo recently told North Carolina Health News. “They get punished for doing what they did and then we punish them again later on when their record is checked and they find misdemeanor convictions in their records. It’s just craziness.”
Perhaps the harshest impact of keeping 16- and 17-year-olds in adult facilities is the greatly increased risk of suicide and sexual assault. Young people are 36 times more likely to commit suicide if they are housed in an adult, rather than a juvenile, facility, according to research from the Campaign for Youth Justice, and “more than any other group of incarcerated persons, youth incarcerated with adults are probably at the highest risk for sexual abuse,” according to the National Prison Rape Elimination Commissions.
In 2012, the Department of Justice released new federal guidelines for combating prison rape that require 16- and 17-year-olds to be housed separately from adult inmates. Yet a 2014 investigation by the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina found only two county jails in the state working to comply with that requirement.
North Carolina and its young people deserve better. As much as they may disagree, 16- and 17-year-olds are not adults. It’s time we stop treating them as such in our criminal justice system.
Robert C. Kemp III is president of the North Carolina Public Defenders Association. James E. Williams Jr. is chief public defender for Orange and Chatham counties.