Another chance

May. 31, 2014 @ 12:12 AM

This editorial appeared in the News & Record, Greensboro

When do kids become adults in the eyes of the law? Last month, the N.C. House of Representatives decided it wants to rewrite the answer. It passed and sent to the Senate the Young Offenders Rehabilitation Act, which would remove 16- and 17-year-olds who are charged with misdemeanors from the adult criminal-justice system and handle their cases in juvenile court.

North Carolina has been out of step with almost all other states in trying these minors as adults in all criminal cases. That would still be done for felonies and for offenders with previous adult convictions. But most would get a better chance to turn their lives around before it's too late.

The bill is bipartisan. Its author is Raleigh Republican Rep. Marilyn Avila; it was supported by almost all Democrats and about half of Republicans.

The measure creates a process to ensure a careful, effective transfer of jurisdiction over young offenders by 2019. It establishes a broad-based but high-level advisory committee that would come up with a specific plan and cost estimates for implementing this change.

Members would include officials of appropriate state agencies, as well as judges, a district attorney, court counselors, a juvenile defender, a police chief and a sheriff. They would have a big job -- essentially inventing a system that will work better than what's in place now.

There's understandable resistance. By age 16, many offenders have spent years in the juvenile-justice system. They keep committing crimes, which usually get more serious over time.

But the bill offers another chance before those offenses reach felony status. It also pushes for better outcomes in the juvenile system, which likely would require more counseling, mental health therapy, drug treatment -- more interventions of all kinds. And more money to pay for it all. That's a big worry for many legislators.

But supporters cite a 2012 report by the conservative John Locke Foundation that found much worse outcomes for 16- and 17-year-olds who enter the adult system: The threat of incarceration as an adult is not a deterrent to crime; recidivism rates are much higher; educational attainment is lower; juveniles are much more likely to be victims of violence and sexual assault in adult prisons; and their suicide rates are higher.

So, North Carolina's juvenile system already is doing a better job of rehabilitating young offenders, although it's far from perfect. But an investment of additional resources to work with 16- and 17-year-olds could produce savings in the long term if that helps steer them away from further and more serious trouble later. Just from that standpoint, it's worth a try.

Then there's the plea of the soft-hearted: These are still kids, as mean as some may seem. They are the age of high school sophomores, juniors and seniors. They're not beyond hope; nor, as accused misdemeanor offenders, have they shown themselves to be so dangerous that they belong in prison. The goal is to see that they never become that dangerous -- and the odds may be better if they don't go to prison.