In most states, the age of criminal adulthood is 18. Five states mandate 17-year-olds be tried as adults, but North Carolina and New York require kids as young as 16 to be automatically tried in adult court.
But that might soon change.
The North Carolina Commission on the Administration of Law and Justice, convened by the state supreme court, released a preliminary report in August recommending the state raise age of criminal responsibility to 18, which the General Assembly may consider in January 2017.
The proposal will not apply to juveniles charged with first-degree murder, or a law that allows 13-year-olds to be transferred to adult courts for especially serious or violent crimes. But most teen crimes are misdemeanors such as drug possession or larceny.
“Juvenile court is much more focused on rehabilitation than punishment,” said Tamar Birckhead, a UNC law professor who advocates for the age change.
Youths in adult prisons are more likely to reoffend compared to juvenile delinquents, who receive drug therapy, tutoring and counseling. Minors in adult prison are 36 times more likely to commit suicide than those in juvenile detention centers, and are much more likely to be sexually assaulted according to the Campaign for Youth Justice.
And unlike a juvenile criminal record, which is largely sealed from the public, an adult conviction or arrest shows up on criminal background checks and can prevent these teens from getting a job, an apartment, college admission or scholarship money.
Birckhead said the issue disproportionately affects low-income and minority kids.
“We are branding these youth to almost ensure that they don’t become productive members of society,” she said.
These issues have prompted seven other states to raise the age in the last decade.
“There are models from other states,” Birckhead said. “We don’t have to reinvent the wheel.”
However, Birckhead said the proposal might face opposition from district attorneys, law enforcement groups and a few legislators.
Orange County District Attorney Jim Woodall said he and other district attorneys are willing to support raising the age, provided DAs have greater discretion for which cases to transfer to adult court.
DAs have wider discretion to prosecute serious crimes such as sexual assault or armed robbery in adult court in many other states. The North Carolina proposal would still require a hearing to transfer those cases to the adult system.
Woodall also wants to ensure the legislature gives more funding to the criminal justice system, which he said is habitually underfunded. Raising the age would require money to hire more juvenile court justices, counselors and staff to help with rehabilitation.
But the policy could pay for itself. It costs $75 per day to keep someone in the prison system, according to N.C. Prisoner Legal Services, an organization that offers legal representation for state inmates.
“I realize it would be more money initially, but it would be an investment in the long-run,” said Allison Standard, a litigator for N.C. Prisoner Legal Services. “You’re saving money by not locking that person up in the future.”
Woodall said it’s unclear when the savings would be realized.
“For those young people who go into the juvenile system during that interim, they’ve got to be treated correctly and we’ve got to give them their chance at rehabilitation,” Woodall said.
The Chapel Hill Police Department said they have no position on the proposal, but are addressing the issue of teenagers being convicted as adults through their own diversion program.
The program allows 16- and 17-year-olds who commit misdemeanors to attend a 90-day program focused on community service, mental health and substance abuse therapy instead of facing a charge for their first offense.
“There’s a push in law enforcement to realize that people commit crimes for underlying reasons,” said Lt. Joshua Mecimore, a spokesperson for the Chapel Hill Police Department. “Putting someone in jail might treat the symptom, but it doesn’t treat the cause.”