At age 16, I wore braces and small clips in my hair, threw myself into trends like Tom’s and made the silly decisions that most kids make. Unlike many kids, I did not have to worry about serious trouble at home, nor need to resort to shoplifting for everyday necessities. I was lucky, and often given the benefit of the doubt despite my poor decision-making skills. I got the simple freedom of being a child.
At age 16, American teens are not allowed to legally drink. They cannot vote in elections, hold office, serve in the draft, or buy tobacco products. They cannot buy lottery tickets, and they can barely drive cars. Yet, in the state of North Carolina, they can be tried as adults in the criminal justice system.
North Carolina is the last remaining state in the nation whose age of adjudication is under 18. In essence, this means that every single day, our justice system automatically sends minors into adults prisons and serves up strict sentences to mere children of ages 16 and 17. Minors are then subject to the violence and harsh conditions of adult prisons, and are still put into solitary confinement in many county jails. Youth in adult prisons are particularly vulnerable to sexual assault; in fact, they are recognized as the most susceptible group to child rape and abuse in the nation. Trapped in the resource-desert that is the adult penitentiary system, youth in adult prisons are 36 times more likely to commit suicide than their peers in the juvenile system.
Most children are locked away for nonviolent crimes—in North Carolina, just 3 percent of juvenile convictions were over violent crimes. Yet, after an encounter with the adult criminal justice system, 16 and 17-year olds are destined to end up back in prison for other offenses upon release. Due to a lack of rehabilitative and education programs, youth held in adult prisons are 34 times more likely to recidivate than those held in juvenile centers. This continuation of incarceration is dangerous not only for minors, but for the rest of the state. It costs $30,000 per inmate per year to run a prison in North Carolina. Collectively, the state spends over a billion dollars annually maintaining its detention centers. This burden falls on taxpayers across the state, and it devastates the families of juveniles every day.
As in all matters pertaining to the criminal justice system, North Carolina’s archaic age of adult jurisdiction is applied inequitably by race. African American children are disproportionately privy to the burden of adult prisons. Black youth make up 60% of the total population of minors in the adult system. School policies and biased implementations of rules target students of color through suspension and detentions. The pressure of missing class and being perceived as a troublemaker funnels black and brown youth into the criminal justice system at a young age, where, in North Carolina, they will be automatically convicted as adults at age 16.
Raise-the-age laws could save this state millions of dollars annual according to studies from states across the country, and, more importantly, they have the potential to redirect the lives of vulnerable youth around North Carolina. Instead of giving up on children after their first minor infraction, we can give them the opportunity to receive the rehabilitative treatment and therapy that is accessible in the juvenile system. A recently filed bill in the North Carolina House, HB280, has garnered bipartisan support and is expected to pass within the next few weeks. HB280 would give the juvenile system automatic jurisdiction over minors tried for nonviolent crimes. Though it still leaves children convicted of violent crimes to the hands of the adult system, the bill is a key first step in extending mercy to a generation of teens in danger of being tied up in the criminal justice system. Today, both Democrats and Republicans are finally coming together over the important issue of youth protection, nevermind that this partnership arrives at the last possible moment.
Raising the age of adjudication to 18 in North Carolina for nonviolent crimes is not at all a revolutionary, but it is a welcome sign of promise in the legislature. Though there is little agreement or bipartisan effort in the contemporary NCGA, at the very least, state Republicans are willing to come to the table on the basic fact of giving minors a second chance. However, the legislature must pass HB280 before the “crossover” period ends on Apr. 27, so that the bill can makes its way to the Senate.
Contact your representatives today and encourage them to support HB280. If they act quickly, this state can ensure that kids get the chance to wear Tom’s and braces, safe from a life behind bars.
Leah Abrams is a Trinity freshman. Her column, “cut the bull,” runs on alternate Fridays.