This week we made a difference in the lives of thousands of kids in North Carolina.
The North Carolina General Assembly has finally raised the age of juvenile jurisdiction to 18 for teenagers charged with misdemeanors and some low-level felonies. This significant change in our state’s criminal justice system means that now most 16- and 17-year-old offenders who are charged with a crime will be directed to the juvenile justice system, rather than adult jails, and will receive more effective services and rehabilitative support in a safer environment among their peers. They’ll also avoid the lifetime consequences of a permanent criminal record, which makes it difficult if not impossible to go to college, get a job, find housing, and serve in the military.
We have finally ended a century of a harmful and outdated policy that put our state’s young people at a greater risk of suicide, sexual assault, and future criminal activity. No longer will a young person who makes one bad decision and is charged with even the most minor offense — like stealing a candy bar — be housed in an adult jail nor saddled with the consequences of a lifelong criminal record.
This was a hard-fought battle. For more than a decade, dozens of organizations, advocates, elected officials, law enforcement officers, attorneys, judges, and community members forged common ground. We reached across the corners of our state and the ends of the political spectrum. We endured many setbacks and pushed through roadblock after roadblock. But our strength together and unwavering commitment to our cause brought us to this moment—the moment when we finally did the right thing for North Carolina children and their families.
Two-thirds of children in the criminal justice system have at least one disability. The juvenile justice system is a far more productive setting for these children than the adult criminal justice system because it offers needed services and support that can help youth with disabilities stay on track in the future. Half of all referrals to the criminal justice system come from the schools, where a school yard altercation that once led to detention now leads to a criminal assault charge. By raising the age, we can now help 16- or 17-year-olds who get in trouble at school—and involved with the criminal justice system as a result—get back on track instead of branding them with a criminal record.
North Carolina was the last state in the country to automatically charge all 16- and 17-year-olds as adults in the criminal justice system, regardless of the offense. Justice often does not move fast enough, especially for those who find themselves caught in our broken legal system. But through the haze of our state’s polarizing and often paralyzing politics, our victory to finally “Raise the Age” in North Carolina shines bright.