Time to ‘raise the age’

North Carolina, judicial system, juveniles, misdemeanors, felonies Mark Martin, Supreme Court, state House, state Senate, raise the age

Prospects continue to brighten for a long-overdue move by North Carolina to stop automatically treating 16- and 17-year-olds as adults in the judicial system.

We’ve argued before on these pages that putting those youngsters on trial as adults for relatively minor offenses — misdemeanors and non-violent felonies — is far more likely to yield outcomes that will cripple their future prospects and greatly increase the odds that they will become part of the revolving-door incarceration that deprives us of human capital, overtaxes our expensive prison system and undermines communities. Dealt with in the juvenile justice system, those young offenders are more likely to get appropriate counseling and training, and less likely to be burdened with a criminal record that will be a barrier to education, employment — and life success.

The movement has broad and bipartisan support rare in these polarized times. Mark Martin, the Republican chief justice of the N. C. Supreme Court, and powerful Republican legislators are among the supporters of a bill popularly known as “raise the age.” This past week, PolitifactNC and News and Observer journalist Will Doran offered impressive validation of the movement’s supporters’ contentions in a detailed “fact check.”

Perhaps one of the strongest arguments for raising the age is that we are an extreme outlier among the states. With the New York legislature’s decision to raise the age of adulthood in that state’s justice system, “North Carolina stands alone,” Martin said in endorsing the bill Monday. “We are the only state in the country that automatically prosecutes 16-year-olds charged with minor, non-violent offenses in adult court.”

That contention, Doran reported, is “basically correct.”

Like most states, North Carolina would, under the proposed legislation, continue to leave open the possibility that 16- and 17-year-olds could be tried as adults. Those charged with violent felonies such as rape, murder or serious assaults would automatically be channeled into the adult court system.

That would seldom happen.

Supporter David Lewis, a Republican who chairs the state House’s powerful Rules Committee, tweeted recently that “96.7% of North Carolina convictions of 16,17 yr old in the last year were for non-violent felonies or misdemeanors.” Those staggering numbers are true, Doran reported, adding “we’re impressed with Lewis’ ability to fit all that into 140 characters....”

Martin correctly asserted, Doran noted, that we have effectively raised the age in many areas, raising questions of equity, to say the least. Eleven of 100 counties, including Durham, divert many 16- and 17-year-olds into counseling, classes and community service.

The raise-the-age bill seems assured of House passage. The Senate is another story, but perhaps the bipartisan momentum from the House will persuade a majority of that chamber’s members to follow the lead of the other 49 states on this issue.