With our state lawmakers back in session, there is one issue that needs to be addressed, something that the vast majority of the other states, except for New York, has already resolved. Clearly, it is time for North Carolina to raise the age at which we try juveniles as adults from 16 to 18.
We should want to do all we can to help make the lives of our children and young people better, finding ways to keep young people out of trouble. And juveniles who get into trouble should be able to start over, getting a second chance to succeed. In the words of Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, “we need to reclaim our children and get the money out of prisons.”
Protecting all children and young people should be our state’s top priority, keeping them encouraged and engaged in productive activities, providing places where they can gather and be involved in wholesome pursuits. This will allow us to be about the business of correcting behavior and not punishing it. Further, it’s time we focus our energy, talents and resources on being part of that “village family,” helping young people with more support for higher education and providing more support for job training.
Having studied the issue of raising the age we try juveniles as adults from 16 to 18 more than once, our state officials know all too well the “negatives” involved with criminalizing juveniles as adults starting at 16 and even younger in some instances. Members of a task force concluded six years ago that “North Carolina is doing a mediocre job with 16- and 17-year- olds, because we have them in a system that’s inappropriate for their needs and inappropriate for their actions.” One task force member admitted, “Leading them into the light is going to take a little more efforts.” I agree, and as a state, it’s time we take up that challenge.
Granted, it might cost more to shepherd more youth to juvenile court, but the long term benefits would make it all worthwhile, especially with fewer juveniles getting a permanent criminal record and living with that burden for the rest of their life. Many argue that we can see immense net savings by prosecuting 16 and 17 year-old youth who commit misdemeanors and low-level felonies in juvenile court. Just maybe, it’s time we live up to the creed, “and justice for all.” This would also be a giant step in the right direction in improving the lives of our children and young people, while emphasizing prevention and early intervention to help juvenile offenders from becoming adult criminals.
By all means, we should do all we can to rehabilitate youth in our juvenile justice system. And it makes clear sense that North Carolina should go ahead and raise the age at which we try juveniles as adults from 16 to 18.
Larry Sutton is a retired school teacher from Clinton High School.