Published 6:12 pm Monday, April 2, 2007

By Staff
Should North Carolina stick with its “do the crime, do the time” method of handling juvenile delinquents in the state’s judicial system?
That’s one of the questions before lawmakers during this session of the General Assembly. And like most of the other questions those same lawmakers are facing right now, this one doesn’t have an easy answer.
North Carolina is one of three states that consider juvenile offenders to be adults come their 16th birthdays. The other two are New York and Connecticut.
During this session, several legislators have introduced bills that would increase the age of an “adult” offender from 16 to 18. Those bills would also allow judges to impose sentences that would not leave young offenders with permanent criminal records.
The bills build on recent recommendations from the N.C. Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission, a legislative study group. The group’s suggestions are worthy of serious consideration, as long as a couple of “understoods” are on the table.
First, it should be understood that this age-upping legislation would apply only to juveniles accused of nonviolent crimes, not heinous crimes. If a teenager stands accused of murder or rape, he or she is on his or her own. That person, even at 16, would still be tried as an adult.
Second, it should be understood that making a move that increases the definitive age of a juvenile offender would put more of a burden on an already underfunded juvenile court system. So if the age change comes, it has to come with the cash to back it up. An unfunded mandate here — even one that could free up 1,000 adult prison beds — won’t do anybody any good in the long run.
0002000003CB000006993C5,But if those two things are fixed — rather than variable — parts of the judicial equation, then upping the age of an “adult” offender will have more benefits than drawbacks.
The legislative study panel found that treating teenagers as adults did not produce the effects law-abiding residents all hope for. Instead of rehabilitating them, teenagers’ time in prison resulted in more time in prison down the road, according to the News and Observer. About half of the teenagers sentenced to adult prisons or probation in 1999 were arrested again within three years, according to the newspaper’s account of the panel’s investigation.
00020000052400000A5E51E,Bordsen, an attorney, sponsors the House bill that would change North Carolina’s age limits for juveniles. “They are considered juveniles in every aspect of state life until they commit a crime,” she told the AP. “We would like the presumption to be that you are a juvenile until and unless someone says you are not.”
Changing the circa 1920 law wouldn’t make prosecutors lame ducks. State law allows minors as young as 13 to be charged as adults in felony cases, as long as a judge agrees.
It is certainly understandable that crime victims want their assailants to be charged with the maximum possible penalties. But it’s hard to ignore data that suggests imprisoned teenagers are not only more likely to offend again, they are more likely to commit violent crimes the next time around.
No legislation is going to stop all repeat offenses among minors. And no legislation is going to going to put every person on the straight and narrow just by keeping him or her out of prison at 16. Powerful as lawmakers are, they cannot legislate morality.
But they have the numbers in front of them. And they have a responsibility to try to curb an alarming statistic.