In NC’s criminal court system, treat teens like teens

Boys play basketball at the Polk Youth Institution juvenile detention facility in Butner.
Boys play basketball at the Polk Youth Institution juvenile detention facility in Butner. TRAVIS LONG

Here’s a fact that seems subject to little disagreement: Teens are not adults.

Adults make that clear to teens in all kinds of ways, restricting what they can do and where they can go, because we know that they aren’t quite ready to routinely make good decisions. Recently, scientists have confirmed that this inability of teens to behave as adults is a function of their brains. The portion of the brain that controls the ability to curb impulses and appreciate consequences is still developing in teens. For teens who have experienced poverty and childhood trauma, the brain’s ability to develop is even more impaired.

This adult understanding of teens’ limitations undergirds our juvenile justice system. In general, the juvenile justice system focuses on rehabilitation. Responses to juvenile misconduct typically include features designed to help adolescents learn from their mistakes and engage in more appropriate behavior. Understanding the immaturity and impulsivity of teens, we assign somewhat less severe consequences to their misbehavior. And by keeping their records private, we don’t saddle them with the long-term impacts that affect adults with criminal records, such as restrictions on employment, military service, college financial aid, housing, and voting, to name a few.

To date, North Carolina law has fallen short of embracing these principles by subjecting its 16 and 17 years old to adult criminal responsibility for their mistakes. We are the only state in the union clinging to this 100-year-old standard. It is time for North Carolina to join the rest of the country and raise the age of criminal responsibility to age 18. A bill currently pending in the General Assembly – House Bill 280 – would do this. Passage of the bill will not only bring North Carolina in line with all the other states, it will be fairer, smarter, and more economical.

The pending bill, known as the Juvenile Justice Reinvestment Act, would allow 16 and 17 year olds who commit misdemeanors and non-violent felonies to be treated as the juveniles they are, and not as adults, when their matters are prosecuted. This more appropriate treatment would affect more than 96 percent of the teen offenders who are now suffering adult consequences. The few 16- and 17-year olds charged with violent felonies will continue to be tried in adult criminal court.

The proposed legislation is one of the recommendations of the North Carolina Commission on the Administration of Law and Justice, a 65-member commission charged by North Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Martin to review the state’s justice system and make recommendations for improvement. After extensive study, the Commission concluded that raising the age of criminal responsibility was a necessary component of a fair system of justice for our state. The report might have made another point: Our communal sense of compassion and understanding strongly weighs in favor of supporting our youth rather than criminalizing them.

The Commission found the impacts of being tried and convicted as adults to be particularly acute on teens imprisoned with adults. Youth in adult jails and prisons are at high risk of being physically assaulted and sexually violated. They are deprived of the programming available in youth detention facilities; instead they are surrounded by older criminals and negative influences.

In addition to benefiting the teens involved, a juvenile justice response to these older teens can of reduce future crimes, which benefits everyone by increasing public safety. Data show that teens prosecuted in the juvenile system rather than the adult system are less likely to commit later criminal acts.

The public needn’t worry that the loss of adult consequences will spur crime by 16 and 17 year olds. Research shows that the fear of a harsh penalty does not deter teens from committing unlawful acts. A report from the John Locke Foundation, which supports raising the age, commented, “The studies all show that, perhaps due to minors’ lack of maturity or less-than-developed frontal cortex, which controls reasoning, legislative efforts to inflict criminal court jurisdiction and punishments upon minors have not deterred crime.”

Raising the age would save money, too. Cost savings come from the reduction in future crimes committed by the youthful offender. The Commission report cited a study from the Vera Institute putting the savings at $52 million. Studies from other states that have raised the age show similar savings.

The North Carolina law setting the age for criminal responsibility at age 16 was passed in 1919. It’s time to make a better choice. Let’s raise the age now.

Jane Wettach is a Clinical Professor of Law at Duke Law School.