It’s far too late and probably doesn’t go far enough, but the “raise the age” legislation making its way through the General Assembly seems finally to be on the way to passage. This morning, the editorial page of the Fayetteville Observer added its name to the cause:
A lot of North Carolinians, including many who serve in the General Assembly, like to point at benighted practices in other Southern states as evidence that ours is a more enlightened place. States like Mississippi or Arkansas are sometimes the target of Tar Heel ridicule.
But in the matter of juvenile justice, we are the bottom feeders, soon to be the sole cellar dweller, the last remaining state that tries 16- and 17-year-old criminal offenders in the adult court system. New York was our last remaining peer in that remnant of, at best, the early 20th century. In April, New York lawmakers voted to phase out the practice. We hope this state follows suit quickly.
Most North Carolina legislators have known for years that trying kids in adult criminal court is wrong. Anyone who has survived parenting a teenager knows the truth of a biological fact of science: A teenager’s brain isn’t fully developed yet. Specifically, the part of the brain that can assess the consequences of various actions isn’t quite up to the job. Teenagers do things impulsively and sometimes those things are illegal. That might mean trying a dangerous drug or shoplifting a watch or taking a neighbor’s car for an unauthorized joy ride. In most cases, the kids get caught and it’s the last such adventure of their young lives. They grow up to be responsible adults….
Fortunately, there’s a growing recognition that aggressive prosecution and long sentences aren’t the answer to cutting crime, and that this country’s massive reliance on incarceration has been an expensive failure. For many offenders — especially young ones — rehab is a better answer.
A coalition of politicians and law-enforcement groups — including the N.C. Sheriffs Association — is backing a ‘raise the age’ bill. So is Gov. Roy Cooper, who was this state’s longtime attorney general. Sixteen- and 17-year-olds are still kids and should be treated that way in our juvenile courts. The rest of the country has already figured that out.”