On Wednesday, the NC legislature passed a bill to raise the minimum age at which a child could be prosecuted in juvenile court from 6 to 8. Governor Cooper is expected to sign it into law. I think we can file this under “They Really Had to Pass a Law for That?!” Our state currently has the lowest minimum juvenile age in the U.S., and this reminds me of a similar law change a couple years ago, sometimes referred to as “Raise the Age” legislation.
Prior to 2019, NC was the only state in the U.S. that automatically treated every defendant, regardless of offense, as an adult starting at 16. Fortunately, the Raise the Age bill brought that age up to 18 with the rest of the country. To be fair, even prior to that change, most 16- and 17-year-olds charged with minor offenses were offered first offender programs to avoid a criminal conviction. But the problem is that collateral consequences start as soon as you’re charged. Even without a conviction, there’s still an arrest record, a court record, and possibly a newspaper report.
That’s why I, along with several community stakeholders, started the Misdemeanor Diversion Program (MDP), which allowed law enforcement to refer juveniles who did not qualify for juvenile court to a court-sponsored intervention without a formal charge. Youth could engage in counseling, community service and restorative justice practices while avoiding the collateral consequences that come with a criminal record. Fortunately, after Raise the Age, that particular program is no longer necessary, but we should continue to expand opportunities for diversion, particularly for young people accused of crime.
Of course, there have been and likely will be cases where, based on the severity of the crime, justice demands adult prosecution of some defendants under 18, and the law still allows for that option. But those represent a tiny fraction of the cases we see. For the vast majority, we should not be treating children as adults. Period.
As always, if you have any thoughts on this or any other issue, shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.