When Will We Stop the Criminalization of Our Youth?

April 2016

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Judge-Marcia-MoreyBy The Honorable Chief District Court Judge Marcia Morey

A few months ago I heard a case of sixteen-year-old Jas­mine who was charged with littering. She stood before me for her first appearance in Durham’s “adult” crim­inal courtroom, 4D. The police officer who filed the charge wrote that Jasmine “wantonly, willfully, recklessly threw a green plastic bottle on the American Tobacco Trail.” When I asked her if she understood the charge, she responded, “Yes and I think it’s stupid.”

I looked at Jasmine’s shuck and saw that she missed her first court date. I asked her about it. She stated that when the officer gave her the citation, she put it in her book bag and forgot about it. Several weeks later, Jasmine was arrested for failure to appear in court and taken to the magistrate. Her mother posted a $500 bond. In court, she asked me to appoint her an attorney. I told her that since it was a Class 3 misdemeanor, she was not eligible for one. Even though the Assistant District Attorney took a dis­missal, the damage was done. She now has a criminal record.

Each year North Carolina criminally prosecutes thousands of nonviolent 16- and 17-year-olds as if they were fully mature adults despite the fact all other laws pertaining to these youth, legally defined as “minors,” do not permit them to buy alcohol or cigarettes, enlist in the military, vote, marry or enter into legal contracts or tanning booths. We treat youth differently for good reason—neuroscience and psychological studies prove brain development continues until well into a person’s 20’s. Young people are impulsive, engage in risky behaviors and have under-developed reasoning skills.

Our laws protect minors with one hand while unfairly punishing them with the other. When will we stop the criminalization of our youth?

For sixteen years, I have been a judge in North Carolina. Until recently, I haven’t given a lot of thought about the indelible damage that has been done to a 16- or 17-year-old when they face me in an “adult” criminal courtroom by simply having a charge issued against them. Naively, I thought that if they get a deferred prosecution, or a first offenders program with community service, that all will be fine. No big deal.

The truth is, it is a huge deal. Collateral damage happens at the time of the arrest, not at the resolution in the courtroom. Even if the charge is eventually dismissed these kids’ lives have already been altered and damaged. First come the court consequences, like coming up with $250 to perform community service or $150 to enroll in drug education classes, as well as missing school and finding transportation to attend two or three court appearances. Even more significant are the long-term collateral consequences of a public criminal record that will impact their ability to get hired for their first job, their college application, financial aid eligibility, enlisting in the military, securing and keeping housing, and licensure in a profession.

In 2014, over 500 misdemeanor charges were filed against 16- and 17-year-olds in Durham County and approximately 17,000 statewide. Most of these were the young person’s first offense. In Durham County, these charges are typically “deferred,” meaning if it is a first time offense, the young person can get community service or pay a fine and court costs to get a dismissal. Then after a period of time, typically a year, the criminal record can be “expunged” but only if the teenager has the resources and time to file a motion and pays the $165 filing fee. While this is a better outcome than a conviction, it still is one that subjects young people to the stigma of criminal prosecution.

In addition to creating lasting collateral consequences, our current criminal justice policies have outrageous racially disproportionate impacts on youth of color. Policing, prosecution, and judging are shot through with implicit bias and institutional racism. Black and Latino youth are more likely to be arrested, charged and jailed than white youth who have committed the same offense. A college student caught with beer at Duke University is not going to come into my courtroom. A 17-year-old caught with a beer on the streets of Durham will.

North Carolina is the only state in the country that treats all 16- and 17-year-olds as adults for all criminal offenses, no matter how minor. For a decade, bills have been presented to the General Assembly to raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction to 18 for non-violent offenders, as it is in most other states. Every year, politics churn insurmountable waves. It’s past time for North Carolina to stop criminalizing nonviolent youth. Their futures matter.

This is an edited version of an article that was originally published in the North Carolina Advocates for Justice Trial Briefs magazine in January 2016.