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Should North Carolina raise the age to try criminal defendants as adults to 18?

In August 2016, the North Carolina Commission on the Administration of Law and Justice held public hearings for reform proposal. One reform proposal that is generating a lot of buzz is the call for North Carolina to raise its juvenile age to 18.

What is a juvenile? And why does it matter when charged with a crime?

Juvenile age is the age at which a state will opt to send youth to adult criminal court instead of juvenile criminal court. The Criminal Committee sought comments from the public about the reform proposal that North Carolina raises its juvenile age to 18. The only exception would be for traffic offenses and violent felonies.

Some information that the Criminal Committee noted when raising the issue included:

  • New York and North Carolina are the only two states that prosecute youth at the age of 16 and 17 in adult criminal court.
  • Only 3 or 4 percent of 16- and 17-year-olds in North Carolina are convicted of felonies involving violence. Most youths in this age range commit misdemeanors.
  • Studies indicate that recidivism (a repeat offense) is lower for youth in the juvenile system than for youth in the adult criminal system. Experts believe that this is because the juvenile system focuses primarily on rehabilitation.

Why should North Carolina raise the age to try criminal defendants as adults?

As of now, North Carolina regards 16- and 17-year-olds as adults when it comes to purposes for criminal justice. Many have argued that this law has had devastating impacts on the lives of some youth. For example, if a 16-year-old were to be arrested after a school fight, he may remain in a local jail among adult defendants if he cannot afford to pay for his secured bond. His case could proceed to adult criminal court. If convicted, his criminal record could make him ineligible for college financial aid, employment, public education, and more.

On the other hand, youths under 16 are treated as delinquents in the justice system for juveniles. If the individual in the case discussed above is younger than 16, a court counselor may allow him to participate in teen court, counseling, or other rehabilitative programs. In the event the court counselor failed to divert his case, he would have gone to juvenile court with his parents. In the worst case scenario, he would serve time in a juvenile-only facility and his juvenile record would not be revealed to the public.

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