North Carolina is one of only two states in which people as young as 16 can be tried as adults.
Despite this fact, political leaders have refused to make changes to the law. However, a recent case that has garnered national attention may begin a necessary groundswell to address this backwards policy.
What happened? In February, the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office charged a 16-year-old girl with felony child pornography for taking a nude photo of herself with her cellphone last year. Let me say that one more time: a teenager was charged with a felony for taking a naked picture of herself.
As a victim, the law still sees her a child. As a criminal, however, she is an adult—subject to a ruined criminal record, sex offender registration, and adult punishments like prison. Eventually, the case was settled on a plea bargain for misdemeanor charges. The laws that created her unfortunate situation, however, are still in place.
“An Antiquated Law That Only Two States Still Use”
As mentioned above, 48 out of 50 states have done away with the laws that allow juveniles to be tried as adults. While seven states have 17 as the age of adulthood, only in New York and North Carolina are 16-year-old defendants processed through the adult courts.
Unfortunately, the legal age of adulthood does not correspond to scientific data regarding brain development. According to scientists, the adolescent brain continues to develop well past 20 years of age. If anything, 18 years is still too young to consider people rational, fully grown adults.
Beyond this, there is a consensus among most Americans—and most state governments—that teenagers are still prone to reckless behavior, and require more mental development before they can be held wholly accountable for crimes.
“It’s an antiquated law that only two states still use,” state Rep. Marilyn Avila, a Raleigh Republican told fayobserver.com. “Forty-eight other states have paid attention to studies of brain development and evidence-based programs, proving that intervention and rehabilitation work better than incarceration.”
For teens, it’s not just an issue of adult incarceration instead of juvenile rehabilitation. Juvenile courts are designed to prevent young offenders from getting permanent criminal records—a burden that can easily ruin their adult lives. Criminal records restrict teens from gainful employment as adults, as well as preventing them from serving in the military or attending college.
Entering the criminal justice system as an adolescent tends to keep at-risk youth “in the system.” Weighed down by a criminal record, unable to find adequate work or attend college, young adults often turn to crime in order to survive—which leads to more criminal charges. This cycle of crime and incarceration is one of the primary reasons the juvenile court system was founded in the first place.
A community youth advocate echoed this sentiment to fayobserver.com. “We definitely need to move the age,” said Shauna Hopkins of Fayetteville Urban Ministry. “There’s been plenty of studies proving that the brain isn’t developed yet, and so to charge someone – a 16-year-old – for a crime, that’s on their record forever, I don’t think that’s fair. It stops their life from happening before it even starts.”
She remembered many of her teenage clients, who despite her best efforts were tried as adults. “Once that happened to them, it was like a snowball effect,” Hopkins said. “They couldn’t find jobs. And so it forced them to basically turn to a life of crime to make ends meet.”
The Opposition: Expanding Juvenile Courts Too Costly
With bipartisan support, and most other states in the country in agreement, why are North Carolina legislators dragging their feet to pass common sense criminal justice reform?
Critics say expanding the juvenile court system would be too costly. Rep. Avila attempted to pass legislation addressing this problem—once in 2013 and again in 2014—that would allow teens charged with misdemeanor crimes to be processed through the juvenile system. Those with felony charges would still be tried as adults. Even this small concession was struck down, however. Why? Because most of the opposition believed it would cost too much money to change the antiquated system.
And then there are the opponents who simply don’t agree with the scientific data available. “I just don’t think that a 16-year-old is that devoid of an understanding of right and wrong,” said state Rep. Larry G. Pittman, arguing against Avila’s legislation in May 2014.
Whatever your feelings on the issue, it is important to know that if your teen makes a mistake – even one you believe to be minor – the penalties they face can be incredibly severe. The best way to understand their options and what may happen to them is to speak with a knowledgeable criminal lawyer. The sooner you have an experienced professional working on the case, the more likely it is for your teen to get a positive outcome.
About the Author
Attorney Mike Schlosser represents victims of personal injury, those charged with a crime, as well as those facing traffic charges. A former Guilford County, North Carolina District Attorney, Schlosser has been in private practice at the Law Firm of Schlosser & Pritchett since 1983 and has been a member of the North Carolina State Bar since 1973.