It's time to Raise the Age on teen crime, Asheville Citizen-Times (06.13.2012)
Suppose your 16-year-old gets arrested for trespassing. In North Carolina, he will be tried as an adult. That is an absurdity that Action for Children North Carolina and a bipartisan group of legislators want to change.
It’s not unusual for children age 16, or even younger, to face adult sanctions for serious crimes. In Florida, Nathaniel Brazill, who killed a middle school teacher in 2000 when he was 13, was sentenced to 28 years in prison.
But North Carolina is one of only two states (New York is the other) that prosecute all 16- and 17-year-olds as adults. This affects some 30,000 teenagers each year, according to ACNC, including one who stole a 69-cent bag of corn chips from a school cafeteria.
The organization’s answer is to Raise the Age. It is mounting a petition drive with the support of 44 other organizations, including Children First/CIS of Buncombe County and Jackson County Psychological Services Inc.
Bills to do just that are pending in committee in both houses of the General Assembly. Among co-sponsors of the House bill are Democrats Susan Fisher, of Asheville, and Phil Haire, of Sylva, and Republicans Tim Moffitt, of Asheville, and Chuck McGrady, of Hendersonville.
Raise the Age should be passed in both houses so Gov. Bev Perdue can sign it into law.
If the measure passes, 16- and 17-year olds facing misdemeanor charges (about 8 in 10 of arrests for those ages) would be tried as juveniles. Felony cases would continue to the prosecuted in Superior Court.
“Data clearly demonstrates that this (existing) approach is, at its core, misguided,” Buncombe County Sheriff Van Duncan wrote on these pages last week.
“In fact, most juvenile offenders in this age group — a staggering 79 percent — have committed misdemeanor offenses such as getting into a fight at school or stealing snacks from a convenience store.
“Many of us reflexively want to be ‘tough on crime.’ However, pursued blindly, this approach ends up being unduly tough on our kids, our communities and our economy.
“Instead, our state should strive to become ‘smart on crime,’ saving the futures of thousands of youths and their potential careers — and ultimately saving millions of state dollars.
“When youths get into trouble and spend time in the adult criminal system as a result, they are more than twice as likely to be convicted of future crimes as those who receive age-appropriate sanctions in the juvenile system.
“There are alternatives to adult incarceration. These include evidence-based rehabilitation and treatment such as substance abuse and mental health services, mentoring, community service and tutoring.”
It is important to stress that teenagers tried in juvenile court are not “getting away” with anything. “Youths must stay in school or attain their GED (General Educational Development diploma),” Duncan wrote.
“They must complete restorative justice sanctions to include restitution and community service, and have an attainable educational or vocational plan. Outcomes are carefully monitored with the goal of guiding youths to become happy, healthy and productive citizens.”
If common sense and compassion aren’t enough reason to change, how about cash? “A recent third-party fiscal analysis determined that Raising the Age … will generate $52.3 million in annual benefits,” Duncan wrote.
“In addition, $97.9 million in long-term benefits are projected should these same 16- and 17-year-olds be spared from having adult records.”
One of the hardest decisions any judge must make is to send a person to adult prison for the first time.
The odds are high that all this person will do there is learn new ways to commit crimes, spending his life in and out of prison.
No judge should face this decision for a 16-year-old.
It’s time for North Carolina to Raise the Age.