Kids Make Mistakes

Justice System Reform

We all want our kids to learn from their mistakes, go to school and get good jobs. Yet, NC remains one of only two states in the nation that automatically prosecutes all 16- and 17-year-olds as adults for something as minor as stealing a bag of Doritos from the lunch room cafeteria (yes, it’s a true story).

One day sitting in my office, I received a phone call from a young woman wanting to know how I could help her with expunging her daughter’s criminal record. The woman, who said her name was Teresa Shirley, went on to explain that her 17-year-old daughter, Cydney, was recently arrested at school for a “scuffle.” I immediately asked Mrs. Shirley to explain what she meant by a “scuffle.” Ms. Shirley stated that Cydney was being bullied by a group of girls at school. One day, Cydney engaged in a yelling match which led to a shoving match. “Mere child’s play” I remember Ms. Shirley saying to me. She went on to describe how she was contacted by the local police department only after Cydney had been arrested and taken to county jail. I recall the intensity in Mrs. Shirley’s voice when she repeated, “why wasn’t I called, I am her parent, she is not an adult.” I sympathetically explained to Mrs. Shirley that in NC a 16- or 17-year-old who commits any crime is automatically charged as an adult. Since that day the Shirley family have been dedicated advocates for the NC campaign to ‘Raise the Age’.

This story is the unfortunate reality of too many NC youth. Every year, nearly 30,000 16 and 17-year-olds are charges as adults. Of those, approximately 8,000 16- and 17-year-olds are eventually convicted of misdemeanors (minor offenses).

This week the N.C. General Assembly reconvened for the “short” legislative session. HB 725: the Young Offenders Rehabilitation Act will be up for a third reading in the House. HB 725 will raise the age of juvenile court jurisdiction from 16 to 18 for misdemeanors only. I know you are probably thinking, “misdemeanors only, why is that?” Well, the short answer is that there are groups across the state who are opposed to raising the age in NC. Despite overwhelming evidence and trends across the nation, NC remains one of only two states in the nation with this outdated policy. For almost 100 years (since 1919) NC has maintained the status quo approach to criminal justice policies.

At this point, however, the tide has turned. The campaign to raise the age in NC is now a bipartisan effort. Judges, attorneys, legislators, advocates, parents, youth, service providers and community members from both sides of the aisle have come together in support of this common sense legislation. Now, the question is when will NC raise the age? The fact of the matter is that every year that we continue to have the “wait and see” approach, thousands of our 16- and 17-year-old children are funneling in and out of adult facilities and returning to their homes, schools and communities with a mark—an adult permanent record. The collateral consequences of a permanent adult record bare these young adults from access to higher education and employment. This leaves North Carolina’s youth unable to compete with the rest of the nation.

Imagine, yourself at age 16 unable to go to college or find gainful employment because of a school fight, disorderly conduct, littering or trespassing—some of the most common offenses youth are charged with across the state.  This outdated policy leads to exactly what we don’t want—kids’ lives damaged by a permanent adult record, a consequence that hurts us all! How many more Cydney Shirleys will North Carolina bar from access to higher education and employment?

Contact your legislators today—tell them that its time for NC to throw out this nearly 100 year old law and give our youth a fair chance at a lifetime of success. Urge them to vote YES on HB 725: the Young Offenders Rehabilitation Act.