LAURINBURG — Keep kids out of adult courts.
That was one of several messages at a breakfast Monday for local lawmakers on improving the judicial system for young people.
More than 100 people, including judges, lawyers, child advocates and elected officials attended the event sponsored by the Juvenile Crime Prevention Councils of Robeson and Scotland Counties.
The breakfast was held at Laurinburg Presbyterian Church. Those in attendance heard about the progress in tackling juvenile crime, raising the juvenile age and stopping the school to prison pipeline.
North Carolina is one of two states that prosecute 16- and 17-year-olds in adult criminal court. There is an effort in North Carolina to raise that threshold to 18 for all crimes except violent felonies and traffic offenses.
“Unless New York has changed their law, New York and North Carolina are they only two states that treat offenders as young as we do in adult court,” said Chief District Court 16B Judge Stan Carmical.
Advocates say raising the age at which some offenders are considered adults would eventually save the state money, reduce court caseloads and help teens become productive adults in the long term. Raising the juvenile age is also a goal of the North Carolina Department of Public Safety.
“The time has long since passed to change that, for lots of reason. But it’s going to happen and the only reason it hasn’t happened already has to do with resources and financing,” Carmical said.
Raising the age would be costly up front because it is more expensive to work with juveniles; the juvenile system is more hands-on, with counseling and other treatment built-in.
But over time, the change would save the state money as recidivism rates are reduced, expenses from housing inmates in adult prisons are saved and juveniles kept out of the prison system are able to grow into productive adults, officials said. One cost-benefit analysis shows that raising the age would ultimately save North Carolina $70 million per year.
“We need support from the community and we need support from our legislators,” Carmical said. “I’m not sure it’s going to require extra money, but it is going to require moving money around by the state government.”
Mike Anderson, North Carolina for Safer Schools deputy director, said classifying young offenders as adults can have long-term impacts. Anderson explained how a friend from high school is unable to coach his son’s baseball team at age 45 because of a fight he got in when he was 16 that resulted in an assault charge.
State Rep. Garland Pierce, whose District 48 includes Scotland County, said he hoped constituents to contact his office and let him know where they stand on the issue. Pierce, who was joined at the breakfast by state Rep. Charles Graham, said the General Assembly is expected to consider the issue in the coming months.
“What we are doing today is planting trees for the youth who are coming behind us,” Pierce said.
Several speakers also expressed concern that minor offenses by young people are being referred to the justice system.
Maxine Evans-Armwood with the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, said in many young people end up in the court system for violations at school — like fighting or making threats — that in the past would have led to suspensions rather than criminal charges.
Anderson agreed, saying that police have been called to handle students sleeping in class, using their cellphone and even walking out of class — something should be handled by the school and not the school’s resource officer. “There is a difference between school policy and state law.”
“There is a difference between school policy and state law,” he said.
District Court Judge Chris Rhue said he does not want the judicial system to extinguish the potential that a lot of young offenders have.
“For adults … they don’t have time, their life course is set in stone,” Rhue said. “When you start talking about children and potential I always tell the young people in court that they have more than I can ever imagine. They have more wealth and that gets some of their attention.”
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