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By Rob Thompson, Senior Policy and Communications Advisor

Nationwide, there is growing recognition that a child’s mind is different from an adult’s, and that severe punishments like solitary confinement and mandatory life sentences are neither effective nor appropriate for dealing with youth offenders.

Last week, President Obama issued an executive order ending solitary confinement for minors, citing the devastating psychological impact of such confinement, particularly on youth.

A day before President Obama’s executive order, the United States Supreme Court ruled that children who received mandatory life sentences prior to 2012, when life sentences for youth were banned, could apply for parole or appeal their sentences.

Inherent in both of these actions is the understanding that youth brains are not yet fully developed, particularly when it comes to executive decision-making and impulse control, and that the still-developing youth mind is especially sensitive to severe punishments.

Despite the growing national acceptance that a child’s mind is different from an adult’s, North Carolina remains one of two states that automatically charges all 16- and 17-year-olds as adults regardless of the crime. As a result, thousands of North Carolina youth wind up with a permanent criminal record and without treatment for the underlying issue that likely led to the offense. A disproportionate number of these children are children of color. For years, child and mental health advocates have been pushing to change this policy, and there could be some momentum in that direction.

A subcommittee of Governor McCrory’s Mental Health and Substance Abuse Task Force recently recommended raising the age of juvenile jurisdiction from 16 years old to 18 years old. The full Task Force, which is chaired by DHHS Secretary Rick Brajer and State Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Martin, will determine whether or not that recommendation is included in the final package to be sent to legislators in March.If this recommendation reaches the legislature, it will find bipartisan support. Two years ago, the State House passed “raise the age” legislation that would only apply to misdemeanors by a 77-39 vote with a majority of Republicans and Democrats supporting the measure.

Both conservatives and liberals recognize that youth in the juvenile justice system are less likely to commit additional crimes than youth in the adult criminal justice system. This is likely because they receive treatment and support—with parental involvement—for the underlying issues that lead to criminal behavior.

Furthermore, when a youth is convicted as an adult, even for a minor crime like stealing a bag of chips, he or she will have a permanent criminal record that can make it difficult to find a job, get into college, join the military, or even find a place to live.

Some legislators remain convinced that youth know right from wrong and should be held to the same standards as adults. As a teenager, I knew right from wrong, but lacked the impulse control and foresight to stop myself from making a number of bad decisions that could have landed me in a slew of legal trouble. I encourage these legislators to think about their own behavior and judgment as a teenager or that of their teenage children. In most cases even a brief reflection will bring about memories of a few poor decisions, perhaps a school yard fight or a night of underage drinking, that could have resulted in legal consequences.

Our growing understanding and acceptance of the difference between a child’s brain and an adult’s is taking hold in the world of juvenile justice as evidenced by recent changes federally and in other states across the country. Let’s hope it leads to the end of North Carolina’s practice of charging all children as adults, and sooner rather than later.


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