Only in North Carolina and New York are 16- and 17-year-olds prosecuted and imprisoned as adults. The other 48 states recognize that teenagers may look grown up but are in fact still developing mentally and emotionally.
Now a concerted effort is being made in our state to move all but the most serious crimes committed by people under 18 into juvenile court. The proposal would be costly and should be undertaken only after careful consideration of long-term consequences, but this is a conversation we must have.
While the adult criminal justice system is primarily about punishing the guilty – rehabilitation is secondary and spotty – the juvenile courts strive to turn around young offenders before they commit more serious crimes. They offer a second chance for those who will take it. For those who made a mistake but learn from it, their criminal record will not follow them into the workplace.
Bills were introduced in the General Assembly this year that would gradually move criminal cases involving 16- and 17-year-olds into juvenile court by 2018. That timetable recognizes that such a major change requires careful planning to ensure appropriate funding, staffing and organization.
The proposals, which grew out of recommendations of a task force that made its report to legislators in January, did not make it out of this year’s session. But the bills had bipartisan sponsorship, an encouraging sign that lawmakers may be amenable to at least some revisions to our current justice system.
This isn’t just a group of soft-on-crime liberals but a broad-based drive to mete out appropriate punishment in the appropriate setting for kids under 18. More than half a century ago another North Carolina commission noted that our state was out of step with most of the nation in how it handles teenagers accused of crimes. Even the U.S. Supreme Court has set limits on treatment of offenders under 18 – taking the death penalty off the table, for example.
Provisions to deny violent or repeat offenders the protections of juvenile court may go a long way toward answering concerns that some teen criminals deserve to be tried as adults. The greatest challenge will be to make sure the juvenile system is staffed, funded and ready to double its caseload. Poorly implemented, the new system would be no more effective than the current one.
Lawmakers have time to get it right, and they should take it. But North Carolina should move emphatically toward these long-overdue reforms.