Last in Line for Change: North Carolina’s Prosecution of Misdemeanor Offenses committed by Sixteen- and Seventeen-year-old Youth

By: Kai Toshumba

Two states, North Carolina being one, are stuck on sixteen while the other forty-eight states throughout the country treat sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds as youth in the juvenile justice system.[i] In North Carolina your ability to be prosecuted in the juvenile justice system for a misdemeanor offense stops at the age of fifteen. This means, any sixteen or seventeen-year-old juvenile that commits a misdemeanor offense is prosecuted in the adult criminal court system.[ii] The biggest difference between juvenile and adult records is that, juvenile records are sealed and do not follow a child once they become an adult. As the law stands, once a child turns sixteen the charge is on their record for life. Do you remember when you were sixteen? Would you want a record of your actions from that age looming over you for the rest of your adult life?

The adult court system focuses on crime and punishment while the juvenile justice system focuses on “punishment and treatment.” Most notably, the juvenile justice system holds youth and their parents accountable, unlike the adult system. The juvenile justice system has positive benefits for youth who commit misdemeanor offenses; youth who go through the juvenile system are less likely to return to the system than those dealt with in the adult system. Moreover, forty-eight percent of youths who have been arrested have a greater chance of receiving rehabilitating services tailored to keep young people on the right path compared to twenty-three percent in the adult system. These services include: frequent contact with a court attorney, assessments, mental health and substance abuse treatment, and counseling. This is a good thing folks, and contrary to popular belief, this is not a get out of jail free card; the juvenile justice system holds young people and their families accountable.

We should talk about race/ethnicity.

If you polled a minority community on the sentiments regarding the number of individuals of color who enter the juvenile or adult court system, most of the community would say the statistics are disproportionate and affect their community. How do disproportional arrest and conviction rates affect minority youth throughout the nation? The statistics are startling, but not surprising. Accordingly, “[in] states with the highest rates of disproportionate confinement of African-American children, those children are incarcerated at a rate that is between ‘twelve and twenty-five times’ that of white children.”[iii] Throughout the nation, “Latino youth are admitted to state facilities at higher rates than whites, even when charged with the same crimes.”[iv] And “Native American children are detained at two-and-a-half times the rate of white children.”[v]

Photo courtesy of ABC Television Network.

Photo courtesy of ABC Television Network.

The short and long term effect of these convictions on a juvenile’s record is profound and extends to all areas of their lives. Arrests, court hearings, and sentenced time impede a young person’s ability to have a chance at completing their education and being a productive member of society. According to the North Carolina Governor’s Crime Commission Juvenile Age Study, an individual’s arrest records, especially convictions and incarceration, reduce future earnings of offenders and decrease their overall likelihood of gainful employment. When national averages reveal that minority youth are being arrested, convicted, and incarcerated at higher rates than their white counterparts, North Carolinians must look critically at our juvenile system. North Carolina is last in line to change a system that allows misdemeanor offenses of sixteen and seventeen year-olds to be prosecuted as adults, and we should encourage expedient reform of a current legislative bill because frankly, time enough.

 Reform is on the Horizon.

The age of juvenile jurisdiction in North Carolina was established in 1909, and has since remained unchanged. It took more than 100 years for the age of juvenile jurisdiction to even be considered, and on April 11, 2013, the “Raise the Age” Bill was introduced to the North Carolina General Assembly and in 2014, the NC House passed bipartisan legislation. Officially called the “Young Offenders Rehabilitation Act,” the bill is “an act to establish the juvenile jurisdiction advisory committee, to create a pilot civil citation process for juveniles, and to raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction to include sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds who have committed misdemeanor offenses.” Since coming into the Senate’s possession in May 2014, the bill’s progress has been labeled as, “Held in Senate Clerk’s Office.” This is not a good thing, and means the bill has come to a standstill until the Senate decides to further discuss the provisions of the bill and vote to make it law.

Critics of expanding the juvenile jurisdiction say that this expansion will cost North Carolina too much money, but reports indicate otherwise. The Governor’s Crime Commission Juvenile Age Study found that an enhanced juvenile justice system can save North Carolina money. Analysis shows that, changing the age of juvenile jurisdiction can create a net benefit of $7.1 million. Accordingly, an enhanced juvenile system can have a positive impact in North Carolina by reducing the rate of recidivism, which is considered re-offending, and reducing the cost per arrest for juveniles. Other states have had success in reducing the amount of juveniles who are sent to secure placement by introducing incentives for local jurisdictions by developing detention alternatives, or eliminating secure placement for certain low-level offenders. Nationwide trends show results in favor of enhanced juvenile justice systems that prosecute sixteen and seventeen year-olds as juveniles which have positive affects the future of a youth. The negative social and economic effect that a tainted record has on a young individual can affect their ability to be positive and productive citizens for the rest of their lives.

It is vital that North Carolinians encourage action from the legislature to evaluate what they have discovered through their own research, findings, and analysis that supports the expansion of the juvenile jurisdiction. Raising the age from fifteen to seventeen will allow more children the ability to refocus their lives through the programs the juvenile jurisdiction can offer and prevent an arrest record from impeding on their success as adults. A pivotal moment for North Carolina has been presented with the creation of the Raise the Age bill. It is essential that the legislature puts this bill back in motion to become law and ensure positive reform in the lives of children who encounter the justice system.

For more legislative information and to find your legislator visit www.ncleg.net and click on “Who Represents Me?” or call 919-733-7928.

[i] North Carolina, as well as New York, treat all sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds as adults when they are charge with criminal offenses.

[ii] N.C.G.S. 7B-1604. (a).

[iii] Megan Annitto, Juvenile Justice on Appeal, 66 Univ. Miami L. Rev. 671 (2012).

[iv] Id.

[v] Id.

One Response to Last in Line for Change: North Carolina’s Prosecution of Misdemeanor Offenses committed by Sixteen- and Seventeen-year-old Youth

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