North Carolina has always fancied itself among the more progressive Southern states, but for every step forward there seems to have been an unnecessary retreat.
Amendment One, the law banning gay marriage that was found to be unconstitutional, is a prime example, as is the shoot-ourselves-in-the foot House Bill 2, which continues to do this state and its residents damage on the economic front as well as to our image.
But North Carolina is poised to take a big step forward by leaving New York as the only state in the nation that continues to treat 16- and 17-year-old as adults in criminal court.
Last week, House Bill 280, which would classify most 16- and 17-year-old criminal offenders as juveniles, was touted at a Raleigh press conference, and it has the backing of key players of our judicial system, including judges, police and sheriffs.
The bill, which would take effect in December 2019, says 16- and 17-year-olds charged with misdemeanors and lower-grade felonies must be tried in juvenile court — although it provides latitude for a nonviolent case to be transferred to the adult system if circumstances warrant.
We expect that a Senate version to the bill will be introduced, an appropriate compromise reached, and for Gov. Roy Cooper’s signature to make the bill law.
The reasons for a higher majority age are compelling, and begin with this: With some exceptions, teenagers who are 16 and 17 years old should not have the balance of their lives imperiled by immature and reckless action, especially one that is nonviolent. Science shows that a person’s brain is not fully developed at those young ages, and that actions are often impulsive. Using the full extent of the law as punishment is too harsh.
It is why we don’t trust 16- and 17-year olds to drink alcohol, to possess full driving privileges, to enter into contracts or to vote.
A higher majority age would loosen up the criminal court system, making justice swifter, therefore making for a safer society.
Ssending children into prison with hardened adults is self-defeating, as recidivism rates are higher than for those who enter the juvenile justice system, meaning these children return to society as adults better able to cause carnage.
An adult conviction is also a matter of public record, making it more difficult for youthful offenders to get scholarships or grants for continued education or to find a job. A juvenile record is sealed, so those opportunities are not compromised.
While we don’t anticipate determined opposition to raising the majority age, there will be conversation on the details, and what manner of crime will send a 16- or 17-year-old into the juvenile system, and what will send him or her into the adult system. The juvenile system will need more dollars to handle the influx, and we would argue punishment should include the opportunity to perform community service, whether that be assisting nonprofits or clearing roads of trash.
The additional money would be a keen investment, saving the state money housing and feeding juvenile offenders in adult prisons, and by rehabilitating these young people, so that they can become productive adults who contribute to society instead of bleed it.