Barry Saunders

NC should join every other state and raise the age – Saunders

Chief Justice Martin pushes to raise the age for adult criminal prosecution to 18

Chief Justice Mark Martin and other officials push to raise the age for adult criminal court from 16 to 18 in Raleigh Monday.
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Chief Justice Mark Martin and other officials push to raise the age for adult criminal court from 16 to 18 in Raleigh Monday.

The only good time to stand before a judge is when you’re a barista at Caribou Coffee and you’re asking her if she wants an extra spritz of caramel – on the house, of course – in her Northern Lite Caramel Turtle Mocha Hi-rise.

Otherwise, standing before a judge is the last place you want to be, especially when hizzoner is as ornery as the one we stood in front of in Richmond County Juvenile Court as teenagers. (I think that’s the year we – thinking we were Robin Hood’s disciples – broke into the school cafeteria, cooked giant pots of oatmeal and flung the doors open for hungry people to come in and eat.)

After upbraiding my six partners in crime – as adults looking back on our idiocy we’ve dubbed ourselves The Seriously Stupid 7 – the stern-faced jurist turned to me.

“What’s your big ass doing in here?” he asked.

That’s when it dawned on me: Dude wanted to give me some adult time. Fortunately for me, despite being the biggest, tallest and possibly the dumbest of our group, I was, at 15, also one of the youngest.

After the laughter in the courtroom died down, he sentenced us to probation but let us know that our next time in front of a judge wouldn’t be in juvey. I swear, he seemed genuinely disappointed that he couldn’t send me up the river.

That knee-buckling experience comes to mind each time North Carolina’s status comes up as the only state in the country that treats 16-year-old offenders as adults.

Being lumped with New York would be great for a whole bunch of reasons: You can get a great Reuben sandwich any time of the day or night, you can catch a W.C. Fields film retrospective anytime of the day or night, or you can find a spa that’ll rub the kinks out anytime of the day or night.

Being lumped with the Empire State is not so sweet, however, when you’re the only two states in the whole danged country who still treated kids whose brains haven’t even fully developed like grown men and women and sentenced them to serve time with adult criminals.

New York’s lawmakers realized they were defending an indefensible position and voted last month to no longer try 16-year-olds as adults except for violent felonies.

And then there was one – us. Yippee.

Supposedly sympathetic North Carolina legislators insist they would love to change the law, but goshdarnit, they just don’t know from where the money to pay for the changes would come. Why, there’s money to hire staff and to build a 96-bed youth detention center, plus subsequent annual funding of $44 million.

Can we afford to do that?

We can’t afford not to do that, unless we think there’s something we know that 49 other states don’t.

State Rep. Mickey Michaux told me recently that he is ecstatic to see the House Appropriations Committee approve a measure to bring the state in line with everyone else. “It’s a good move,” Michaux said. “I’ve been studying this and working on this for 15 years. I’ve always been in favor of doing away with” trying 16-year-olds as adults.

What about the costs associated with such a move? I asked.

“It’s going to take money to start,” he acknowledged. The move would ultimately pay for itself, he said, in savings from – among other things – “lessening recidivism and reducing time in court.”

Psst, just between you and me: The legislature could always pay for it by holding off on the tax cuts for rich people and corporations which they view as a panacea for every ailment.

Forget the cost in dollars, though: What about the cost in lost human capital?

Sentencing kids to adult prison may satisfy society’s bloodlust for vengeance and punishment, but how many of those 16- and 17-year-olds, after years with adult prisoners, are going to come out as better people than when they went in, ready to become contributing members of society?

When the bill goes to the full House, let’s hope legislators will vote to rescue our state from this isle of stupidity that we alone now occupy.

After that, they could get to work on making it so you can get a good Reuben sandwich at 4 o’clock in the morning.

Barry Saunders: 919-836-2811, @BarrySaunders9

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