RALEIGH — A stint in juvenile detention is tough for kids who run afoul of the law, but it’s nothing compared to time spent in adult prison.
Seventeen-year-old M.B., whose name is withheld because he’s a minor, would know.
In North Carolina, kids older than 16 are prosecuted as adults. Some are even sent to adult prisons.
That scares M.B. “I’ve been into [juvenile detention],” he said. “But with juvenile, it ain’t like prison. Prison is serious. People die in there, a lot. And somebody who’s 17, or 16, should not be in there.”
North Carolina is the only state in the country that hasn’t raised its juvenile age.
In April, New York passed “raise the age” legislation. North Carolina lawmakers are trying to enact a similar law, House Bill 280, the Juvenile Justice Reinvestment Act.
Raising the age will yield social and economic benefits, but treating 16- and-17 year-olds like juveniles primarily should be a moral decision, supporters say. They note that kids handled through the juvenile justice system have more interaction with family members, and counselors, and get the opportunity to learn habits and skills that will help them become responsible, productive adults.
M.B., one of seven children in his family, fell in with a rough crowd during his early years. Fighting and stealing landed him a spot inside the Stonewall Jackson Youth Development Center in Cabarrus County.
The punishment was difficult, but he’s grateful for the experience, saying it put him back on the right path.
After leaving juvenile detention, M.B. was accepted into a rehabilitation program run by the North Carolina Methodist Home for Children.
He’s been there for six months, learning life skills, excelling in school, and working a job. He’s about to graduate from high school, and wants to study business at East Carolina University.
The former delinquent is one of a lucky few — an at-risk kid with a chance to rebuild his life.
Some of his friends aren’t so fortunate. “I know a lot of kids in the criminal justice system,” he said. “I talk to a lot of them.”
Crime is a decision, and his friends have to deal with the consequences, he said. But sometimes the punishment seems unfair.
H.B. 280 passed the House last month by an overwhelming 104-8 vote. The House budget, passed June 2, assigned a portion of $7.5 million in nonrecurring reserve money to fund to H.B. 280, but didn’t specify exactly how much would be allocated to the bill.
The estimated annual cost to raise the age is just over $40 million.
The bill is being considered in the Senate, but that body’s budget included an unfunded policy provision to raise the age. House and Senate leaders will negotiate the final budget this month.
Sen. Tamara Barringer, R-Wake, a primary sponsor of the Senate version of the legislation, addressed the need to raise the age during a May 30 news conference.
“I believe in second chances,” she said. “I have fallen myself, and have picked myself back up. I have had children in my home as a foster mom for 10 years, and children need a second chance. We all need a second chance now and then. And this bill will offer that to those children.”
Barringer was joined by two prominent faith leaders, Rev. Mark Creech of the Christian Action League of North Carolina, and Rev. Bruce Stanley, president and CEO of the Methodist Home for Children.
Both ministers called on Senate lawmakers to support H.B. 280. “It is not proportional, sensible, or moral that our state’s criminal justice system treats 16- and-17 year olds as adults, when they commit minor and low-level crimes,” Creech said. “It results in more drastic and permanent consequences for them. Moreover, the family is of paramount importance to God. Laws that undermine the family harm society.”
Children are susceptible to surrounding influences, and laws that place kids in adult prison are only pushing juveniles into lives of crime, Stanley said. “What’s the implication of a 16- or 17-year-old in an adult prison population? With whom are you surrounding them? Whether the state realizes it or not, we have been showing [kids] a vision of their future, and [it’s] a horrific and terrible vision of their future.”
Multiple studies, including one from the North Carolina Commission of the Administration of Law and Justice, show that kids are less likely to become adult criminals if they are punished under the juvenile system.
One common misperception is that teens will be held more accountable under the adult system, William Lassiter, deputy commissioner of public safety, told Carolina Journal.
But 16- and-17 year-olds who commit low-level felonies often receive unsupervised probation when charged in adult court. Additionally, parents and guardians are not required to participate in any part of the process.
The juvenile system requires offenders to undergo counseling, community service, and rehabilitation. In some of the more serious cases, kids are detained in one of the state’s four youth development centers.
Parents and families are involved every step of the way.
Yet some lawmakers continue to express concern that raising the age will soften punishments for violent crimes.
Only 3 percent of 16- and 17-year-olds convicted in 2014 committed violent felonies, according to data from the North Carolina Sentencing Commission. Under H.B. 280, all teens convicted of those crimes will be automatically transferred to adult court.
For most older teens, raising the age isn’t about second chances. It’s simply about getting the justice they deserve, Lassiter said.
Some kids commit minor offenses that, if punished in adult court, could ruin college or job opportunities. Others are spurred to crime by family-related violence or trauma, he added.
Of the 16 females in juvenile detention, 14 are victims of sexual assault, rape, or prostitution. Many have been violated at the hands of family members. Some have killed or injured their attackers in self-defense.
The juvenile justice system takes these factors into account. “Yes, [kids] made mistakes themselves — and there’s not an excuse for some of the mistakes that they made — but at the same time, a lot of them are severe victims of horrible things that have happened in their lives,” Lassiter said. “That’s what this bill is about. Giving this child, who a lot of times is in a really desperate and tough situation, a fighting chance. … Because they’re kids, and we want to give them the opportunity to be that.”
Kari Travis is a staff writer for Carolina Journal.