TAR HEEL VIEW: Raising the age for juveniles a positive action

The “Raise the Age” campaign took on a tough challenge and was remarkably effective.

The new state budget transfers responsibility for most 16- and 17-year-old offenders from the adult correctional system to juvenile jurisdiction.

That’s a progressive step approved by a conservative legislature. The typical law-and-order response is to deal with offenders according to their crimes, not their age. It would have been easy for Republican lawmakers to reject any change on the grounds that even 16-year-old kids can be very dangerous. But advocates framed the issue in more pragmatic terms.

The man most responsible for the new look at this issue is Mark D. Martin, chief justice of the N.C. Supreme Court who happens to be a Republican. In 2015, he convened a commission to study reforms to North Carolina’s criminal-justice system. One of its committees, headed by retired Judge William A. Webb, studied the question of juvenile jurisdiction.

It had plenty of information to review since 48 other states already had raised the age of adult responsibility to 17 or — in most cases — 18. The evidence was overwhelming that leaving 16- and 17-year-old offenders in the juvenile system decreased their rate of re-offending and saved money in the long run. This is because more services, including education, counseling and mental health, are provided for young offenders and participation by their parents is required.

There’s also a question of fairness and equity. A criminal record can stick with a young person for the rest of his or her life. It can reduce opportunities for a college education, military service or employment. Juvenile records are confidential. A person with a single mistake on his or her record from North Carolina could be placed at a competitive disadvantage against individuals from other states whose mistakes are hidden in juvenile records.

The commission recommended raising the age of responsibility for all misdemeanors and for low-level felonies. For serious, violent crimes, 16- and 17-year-olds would still be prosecuted and punished as adults.

Martin not only endorsed the recommendation but said he would push for legislation in the General Assembly. He did, finding key allies. An influential lawmaker, Rep. Chuck McGrady (R-Henderson), was the primary advocate.

An important component of the plan is to put more resources into the juvenile-justice system — necessary because more individuals would be served there and because of the need to provide more lawyers, counselors, teachers and administrators. The budget adds funds to build a new juvenile-detention facility in Rockingham County. Some youngsters still will be incarcerated — but not in the adult prison system, where they’re more likely to become embittered, lifetime criminals. So spending more when they’re young will save much more spending later, according to the experience in other states.

Earlier this year, New York raised its age, leaving North Carolina as the only state to treat 16-year-olds as adults in all cases. That will officially change in 2019, thanks to legislative action. North Carolina could have been left as the lone regressive state in this matter.

The one hang-up is that Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper is likely to veto the budget because of other provisions. Cooper, a former attorney general, voiced his support for raising the age, but the budget is inadequate in numerous ways. Republicans have enough votes to override his veto.

All that aside, raising the age will make North Carolina safer and give juvenile offenders a better chance to make up for youthful mistakes.

The Greensboro News & Record