Last week, North Carolina managed to once again distinguish itself—and once again, not in a particularly good way. (And no, we're not talking about that state representative who went all Godwin's Law about Abraham Lincoln. See next item.) The problem this time wasn't so much what we did but what we haven't done.
On April 10, New York governor Andrew Cuomo signed into law a so-called Raise the Age measure, which will direct most criminal cases involving sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds to juvenile court, rather than the adult criminal justice system. Before Cuomo signed that bill, New York was one of only two states to automatically treat sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds as adults. Guess what the other state is.
Why is this bad? For starters, there's a sprawling body of research documenting the harmful effects of locking up teenagers in adult prisons. It's estimated that close to 80 percent of young adults released from adult prisons will reoffend or go on to commit even more serious crimes. And it's not just recidivism that's an issue. When young people are housed in adult facilities, they're vulnerable to abuse and psychological despair. In fact, the risk of sexual assault is five times higher in adult facilities than in juvenile facilities, and young people in adult prisons are thirty-six times more likely to kill themselves than those placed in juvenile centers.
There's an effort afoot to reform the system. A bill filed in March, HB 280, would raise the age of juvenile prosecution in the state so that sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds would no longer automatically be tried as adults. The bill—which only applies to misdemeanors and low-level felonies, not violent or serious felonies—has a bipartisan range of supporters, from Republican U.S. Senator Thom Tillis to Democratic Governor Roy Cooper, as well as N.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Martin. It was sponsored by three Republicans and one Democrat, Duane Hall of Raleigh.
Hall points out that similar legislation previously passed that House but didn't get a hearing in the Senate. He thinks it will fare better this year. There are some kinks to work out. Most notably, establishing this system will cost the state as much as $20 million in the first year, even though it will save money over the long run.
"Most everyone using that as a reason have all said that if we can make sure that it's funded, they're in favor of it," Hall says.
But it's something that has to get done, he argues.
"It's a dubious honor to say the least that North Carolina is last on another list—and this one is as bad or worse than some of the others," Hall says. "To say that we are the last state to still treat our children like adults is not something to be proud of."
This article appeared in print with the headline "+JUVENILE INJUSTICE."