Congrats, North Carolina. You’re Now the Last State to Prosecute Sixteen- and Seventeen-Year-Olds as Adults
Hats off to you, North Carolina. You’ve put yourself on the map for all the wrong reasons once again. No, we’re not talking about the absurd bill filed yesterday to make gay marriage illegal (Supreme Court, Shmupreme Court, amirite?), or the industry-protecting hog-farm bill moving quickly through the legislature, or even the faux-HB 2 repeal Governor Cooper signed a few weeks ago.
Today’s topic is juvenile justice—specifically, the treatment of teenagers under the age of eighteen in the criminal justice system. Until recently, North Carolina was one of just two states in the country (along with New York) to prosecute all sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds as adults. It’s a practice juvenile justice advocates have long argued is not just ineffective but also costly and counterproductive—and one that actually increases the likelihood that youthful offenders will wind up back in the criminal justice system.
But here’s the thing about that: New York lifted its restriction on Sunday, when Governor Andrew Cuomo signed legislation effectively raising the age of criminal prosecution for sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds. Now, North Carolina is the last state in the country to funnel sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds through the adult criminal justice system.
Why is this bad? For starters, there’s a sprawling body of research documenting the harmful impacts of locking up young people in adult prisons. It’s estimated that close to 80 percent of young adults released from adult prisons will reoffend later in their lives or go on to commit even more serious crimes, ultimately diverting them back into the criminal justice system in a vicious cycle that’s hard to break. And it’s not just recidivism that’s an issue. When young people are housed in adult jails and prisons, they’re extremely vulnerable to abuse and psychological despair—far more than your average adult. In fact, the risk of sexual assault is five times higher in adult jails and prisons than it is in juvenile facilities, and young people in adult prisons are thirty-six times more likely to kill themselves than those placed in juvenile centers.
There is some bipartisan effort to reform the system, however. A recent bill filed in the state House, HB 280, would, like New York, raise the age of juvenile prosecution in the state so that sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds would no longer be tried as adults. The bill has a range of supporters, from Republican U.S. Senator Thom Tillis to Democratic Governor Roy Cooper.
Maybe, in a rare moment of bipartisanship, they can work together to make sure this is one less bullet point on North Carolina’s long list of embarrassments.