North Carolina is moving to stop putting all 16- and 17-year-olds in the adult criminal justice system. Good.
While many states provide adult trials for younger defendants accused of heinous crimes, only North Carolina and New York automatically treat everyone 16 or older as an adult. There were 89 inmates in the North Carolina prison system under the age of 18 as of last July; 14 were 16 years old and 75 were 17 years old.
New York has a bill that would modify its law, though in many cases maintaining the presumption of an adult trial for felonies. North Carolina has a better idea.
The Juvenile Justice Reinvestment Act, as House Bill 380 is entitled, would try 16- and 17-year-olds as juveniles unless the charge is a serious felony. There is an option for adult trials for less serious felonies.
The bill takes two other steps to address juvenile crime. It sets up “school-justice partnerships with local law enforcement agencies, local boards of education, and local school administrative units with the goal of reducing in-school arrests, out-of-school suspensions, and expulsions” and mandates juvenile-justice training for law-enforcement officers.
The bill’s chances are quite solid, as 64 of the 120 representatives have signed on. Republican Chuck McGrady of Henderson County is a primary sponsor, while other sponsors include Buncombe County’s three Democrats (John Ager, Susan Fisher and Brian Turner), Republican Mike Clampitt of Swain County and Republican Kevin Corbin of Macon County.
Almost everyone understands that it makes no sense to automatically put 16-year-olds into adult court. That includes law-enforcement officers and prosecutors as well as advocates outside the system.
“Evidence shows that the juvenile system – with programs tailored to how children think and learn – is more effective at rehabilitating youth,” according to the Youth Justice Project. “Fewer then go on to commit another crime, which means lower costs to society and more children growing up to become educated, employed citizens.”
Buncombe District Attorney Todd Williams had strong words when the effort was getting organized locally. “The evidence is overwhelming that this would be a sound fiscal decision. It will maintain an open door of opportunity for many juveniles who have made a mistake at a young age and will have to carry the burden of a criminal conviction throughout their life.
“The evidence has shown that recidivism is reduced with raising the age and it will ultimately make North Carolina a safer state.”
If it is numbers you want, here are a few: Data show a 7.5 percent decrease in recidivism when teens are adjudicated in the juvenile system. Further, when youthful offenders are prosecuted in the adult system, they recidivate at a rate that is 12.6 percent higher than the overall population.
Corrections officials also recognize the problem. “The right thing is to ensure we are addressing the needs of young people in a proper way,” said W. David Guice, commissioner of the state Division of Adult Correction and Juvenile Justice.
“While we have done some great work in a lot of ways we have been somewhat restricted from doing many good things because of the way the current statue is written,” he said. In other words, enlightened penal policies can do only so much when the law is arbitrary.
HB 380 would allow the system to treat youthful offenders as individuals. Some are accused of crimes so heinous that the decision must be made in an adult court, but most have not. They deserve the chance to put their errors behind them without a criminal record that will follow them all the days of their lives.
— from the Asheville Citizen-Times.