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A bill recently introduced into the North Carolina General Assembly has reopened questions about what age a teenage offender should be treated as an adult in the criminal justice system. It’s a issue that’s occupying legal minds not just in North Carolina but across the nation.
North Carolina has been tough on this issue in the past. The state law that treats 16-year-olds as adults is one of the most uncompromising in the nation and has been in effect since 1919.
Rep. Marilyn Avila hopes to soften it in a new bill that would raise the adult criminal offender age from 16 to 18, UPI.com reported.
“I feel very good about it,” she said. “We’ve just got to do a lot of ground work.”
At present in North Carolina 16-year-olds and 17-year-olds are charged as adults for any crime, even for misdemeanors. Only New York’s law is as strict, UPI.com reported.
Other states may have less stringent laws but exceptions mean teenagers can be tried as adults in many of them.
More than 10 years ago in neighboring Virginia, lawmakers gave more leeway for a juvenile to be tried as an adult. “In many instances, prosecutors can take a teen’s case to adult court even if a juvenile judge rules that the case doesn’t belong there,” the Roanoke Times reported.
Reports since have suggested treating teens as adults in the criminal justice system does little to deter crime. A state commission looked into whether by sending them to adult prisons, they were more likely to become repeat offenders.
Roanoke lawyer Chris Kowalczuk, who has defended teenagers in murder cases, told the Roanoke Times, the problem with putting teens in an adult prison is clear: “All you’ve succeeded in doing is permanently and irrevocably scarring them for life.”
What’s now happening in North Carolina and elsewhere appears to be a reflection of a retreat from the zero tolerance laws of the 1980s and 1990s and an admission that they may have failed in respect to teens being charged in the adult system.
Over the past four years Mississippi, Rhode Island, Connecticut and Illinois have all passed laws that now send certain 16- and 17-year-old defendants to juvenile courts, instead of automatically sending them to adult courts as was the case in the past.
“What’s pushing these states is the realization that minors don’t think like adults, and that treating them as such is counterproductive,” the Christian Science Monitor reported.
Recent Supreme Court decisions have provided new impetus for the retreat from the tough laws of 20 and 30 years ago. In 2005 the court overturned a death penalty ruling for youths under 18. In 2010 the court banned life-without-parole for under 18s who are convicted of crimes short of murder.
Justice Anthony Kennedy referred recently to “fundamental differences between juvenile and adult minds.”
If North Carolina also relaxes its law on the age an offender can be tried as an adult, it will be a clear signal that the tide has turned.