Should children stealing candy bars be tried and sentenced as adults? North Carolina’s lawmakers think so. Only North Carolina and New York try all children age 16 and older as adults. And make no mistake, “all” means all. Regardless of whether 16-year-olds are accused of murder or petty theft, our courts process them as if they were adults.
Of course, 16-year-olds are not adults, and treating them as such is cruel, unfair and counterproductive. Children in adult prisons face heightened risks of violent attacks and traumatic sexual assaults. Furthermore, placing children in the adult criminal system harms their chances at rehabilitation. It turns out that applying harsh adult sentences to children actually increases their likelihood of reoffending. It is morally indefensible to subject children – especially those accused of mere misdemeanors – to an adult criminal process that offers endless harm and no real benefit.
Thankfully, we recently had a glimmer of hope. In June, North Carolina’s Department of Public Safety announced that it will no longer punish children in adult prisons with solitary confinement. Solitary confinement is the practice of leaving prisoners in tiny, isolated cells for all but a few hours of each day. The United Nations has said that this punishment can amount to torture. It causes a host of physical and psychological problems in prisoners of all ages and is particularly harmful to youth. By ending the use against children, DPS goes a long way to reduce their suffering in adult correctional facilities.
But while DPS’s action is laudable, at the end of the day it’s something akin to treating a severed limb with a Band-Aid. The department simply does not have the ability to do what’s really necessary: to end the incarceration of children in adult prisons. That power rests with North Carolina’s legislature. Unfortunately, the legislature has completely and utterly failed North Carolina’s children in this regard.
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Year after year, legislation is proposed to end the practice of incarcerating children in adult prisons. Year after year, this legislation fails. North Carolina’s legislature must abolish this practice and ensure that our state’s children are treated as children. To do anything less is a failure of justice.
Ben Copulsky is a recent graduate of Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law. He lives in Raleigh.