The North Carolina State Senate unanimously voted on March 25 to pass a new bill that would raise the minimum age for juvenile delinquency from 6 to 10. Of states with a specified minimum age, North Carolina currently has the lowest in the nation.
With bipartisan support, Senate Bill 207 is aimed to keep young children out of the criminal justice system in order to minimize early trauma and help struggling kids and families get the help that they need.
State Sen. Mujtaba Mohammed (D–Mecklenburg), one of three primary sponsors on the bill, said since children below the age of 10 are unable to understand the American court process, they should not be tried as juveniles by the justice system.
“A lot of these kids don’t have the capacity to understand what’s happening in our court system or what they’ve been accused of,” Mohammed said. “These kids believe in the tooth fairy and Santa Claus.”
Mohammed said he represented young children while working as an attorney at the Council for Children’s Rights in Charlotte and realized the importance of keeping these children out of the courts.
He said he learned children in the criminal justice system are often born into households of trauma, substance abuse or economic crisis — all of which increase their likelihood to become involved in crime.
Deputy Secretary for Juvenile Justice William Lassiter said it's important to keep children below the age of 10 out of the court system.
Lassiter said these children cannot comprehend the decisions that lawyers are making on their behalf, and such early experiences with the justice system will only cause further trauma for these kids.
“There are better ways to provide services and to hold kids accountable at that age,” Lassiter said. “We should be focusing on working with kids that have mental health illnesses at those ages and trying to figure out what’s causing this behavior to occur in a kid this young.”
To address these causal factors, Senate Bill 207 sets up a child consultation process. This clause enforces that kids referred to the justice system who are under age 10 will meet with a court counselor to assess the appropriate resources for that individual.
Lassiter said this alternative process will allow children to obtain the mental health assistance they need in order to prevent further encounters with the criminal justice system.
Ann Webb, senior policy counsel for the ACLU of North Carolina, said these children should be receiving guidance from the justice system, as opposed to being punished for crimes they do not understand.
"We also know that children under 10 almost always need help rather than punishment," Webb said. "We support the efforts of all the legislators who are working to find solutions to supporting those kids rather than placing them in a stressful adult environment."
Over the past few decades, law enforcement has been quicker to send children to the courts, Mohammed said, which has increased this need for change within the system.
After the death of George Floyd, Mohammed said there has been increased scrutiny into the justice system, including the juvenile justice process, which has accelerated the interest in Senate Bill 207 over the past year.
“Both Republicans and Democrats are excited about doing the right thing,” he said. “These justice issues are not Republican or Democratic issues — they’re simple right or wrong issues. They’re the moral and just thing to do.”
Mohammed said since the Senate passed the bill, the legislation now will be sent to the House for further consideration before going to the governor’s desk for final approval. If the bill is passed by all necessary officials, it will go into effect on Dec. 1.
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