In 2004, I moved from Massachusetts to North Carolina to teach in the Juvenile Justice Clinic at UNC Law School. I had practiced criminal defense as a public defender for a decade but had little experience in juvenile court. In addition to the usual adjustments that come with moving a family from one region of the country to another, I was troubled to learn that North Carolina was one of only three states that ended juvenile court jurisdiction at 16, though Connecticut was on the brink of raising the age to 18, and New York had mechanisms by which youth could petition for return to juvenile court. This meant that whenever a 16 or 17 year old in North Carolina was charged with a criminal offense (even a minor misdemeanor like simple assault resulting from one kid pushing another in a school hallway), the case was handled in adult criminal court for all purposes and with no exceptions.
I gave a lot of thought to how this came to be, why it was that North Carolina — considered one of the more progressive and enlightened in the South — was so backward in this regard. I began spending time in the UNC Law Library and the archives of the UNC School of Government and learned that since 1915, groups of lawyers, law makers, and academics had consistently advocated for the upper age limit to be raised to 18, but the legislation had never passed. Instead, this early pattern of reform and retrenchment continued to the present day.
In 2008, I published an article on my research in the North Carolina Law Review’s annual issue focusing on legal topics of particular salience to the state. I set out the arguments both for and against raising the age, the long history of the state’s resistance to reform, and a tentative explanation for why progress had not yet been made (namely, lack of political will). I believed that because it made sense rationally — both from a fiscal and community safety perspective — change was inevitable. After all, North Carolina already had a provision allowing for children as young as 13 to be transferred to adult court when they were changed with any felony, and no one was suggesting that this would or should be altered. Therefore, we were really only talking about 16- and 17-year-olds who were facing misdemeanors, which encompassed the vast majority of those charged with criminal offenses. Surely it could be agreed that juvenile delinquency court should have original jurisdiction of these youth, particularly given that probation supervision is much more rigorous in the juvenile system and that empirical data confirmed that recidivism rates would drop when this cohort received age-appropriate treatment.
How naive I was….
The following year I was invited to co-chair the “legal issues working group,” which was part of a task force established by the N.C. General Assembly to examine the issue of raising the age (of course this was merely one in a decades-long line of “task forces” so charged). This was my first foray into the legislative process, and all I can say is that I won’t be entering politics anytime soon. I ended my two-year assignment with great appreciation for hard-working law makers in the trenches, those forced to compromise and settle for so much less than what they know to be right in order to achieve something of consequence to their constituents. I grew to admire such legislators as Representative Alice Bordsen of Alamance County, whose persistence and dedication catalyzed the most recent push to raise the age, beginning in 2006. I came to respect members of law enforcement, such as Frank Palombo, Former President of the N.C. Chiefs of Police, who has been a strong and vocal supporter of the legislation. I watched talented policy advocates and lobbyists work 24/7 toward this elusive goal, such as the wonderful Brandy Bynum and her team at NC Action for Children [check out an example of their work at Raise the Age (30 sec PSA)]. And yet…here we are years later, and little progress has been made.
Just yesterday, however, the House Judiciary Subcommittee voted unanimously to approve raising the age. The legislation now moves to the full House Appropriations Committee next week. Am I hopeful? Yes. Am I optimistic? Stay tuned.