Last in the country

This editorial appeared in the News & Record, Greensboro

When N.C. Chief Justice Mark Martin began his push for juvenile justice reform, our state was one of only two in the country that treated 16-year-old offenders as adults. Now North Carolina is the only one. "We've simply become an outlier," Martin said in a news conference at the legislative building Monday.

He was there to urge support for House Bill 280, the Juvenile Justice Reinvestment Act, which drew dozens of co-sponsors of both parties when it was introduced two months ago. It's been held in a judiciary committee since then, but lead sponsor Rep. Chuck McGrady (R-Henderson) says he will focus this week on moving the bill ahead.

Its main feature is a proposal to handle 16- and 17-year-old offenders in the juvenile system when they've committed misdemeanors and less-serious felonies. Experience in other states says this will drop the recidivism rate, meaning that young offenders will be less likely to commit more severe crimes later.

The reinvestment component is critical. The juvenile system will need more counselors and other services to achieve correction rather than punishment. Sponsors also say the state likely would need an additional juvenile detention facility for young offenders who should be detained but not imprisoned with adults.

North Carolina has been slow to reach this point because of well-founded concerns about violent crimes committed by teenagers. For murder, rape and other serious offenses, suspects younger than 18 still would be tried and punished as adults under this bill. What will no longer happen is sticking someone with a lifelong criminal record for a relatively minor offense committed as a 16- or 17-year-old. Kids make dumb mistakes, but it isn't right to automatically saddle them with the consequences for the rest of their lives. That reduces their chances of going to college, serving in the military or competing for jobs -- often with an unfair disadvantage compared to people from other states who may have made similar mistakes but don't have a criminal record.

Last month, New York passed a measure to raise the age of adult jurisdiction to 18 from 16. Also, the Texas House of Representatives recently passed a measure to raise the age in that state from 17 to 18. The Senate has yet to act, but the move signals that the Texas experience with treating 17-year-olds as juveniles has been positive.

Here in North Carolina, Martin convened a Commission on the Administration of Law and Justice in 2015 to study judicial system reform. It strongly recommended the juvenile justice change and won support from district attorneys and law-enforcement organizations.

While it will cost the state money in the near term to serve more young people in the juvenile-justice system, the end result will be less crime and less expense for long-term adult incarceration. Every other state is on that path. North Carolina would be wise to follow.