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Editorial: Recognizing teen realities

Rep. Marilyn Avila of Raleigh shared some wisdom about teenagers with fellow lawmakers last week.
ěMother Nature is providential,î Avila said. ěShe gives us 12 years to develop a love for our children before turning them into teenagers.î
The comment was apropos for a discussion of teenagers, brain development and crime. While North Carolina looks upon 16- and 17-year-olds as adults in the criminal justice system ó one of only two states to do so ó those teens usually donít have the maturity, impulse control or decision-making skills associated with adulthood. They donít think about consequences or assess risk. And that frustrates parents mightily.
Fortunately, Avila and other advocates for the Raise the Age movement in North Carolina successfully made their point. Though legislation to consider raising the age of juvenile jurisdiction from 16 to 18 never got out of committee this year, an exception will be made so it can be taken up again in next yearís short session.
Thatís good news for the youth of North Carolina. Instead of routing 16- and 17-year-olds charged with minor crimes through the adult system, the legislation proposes sending them through the juvenile system. Thereís a considerable difference. Treated as an adult, a teen faces charges that are a matter of public record. They go through adult court and, if guilty, wind up with a permanent criminal record. They can also wind up in adult prison. The juvenile systemís records are confidential and it focuses more intensively on rehabilitation and getting young lives on the right track.
For the record, the N.C. Department of Corrections houses most teen offenders ó the males, at least ó in Western Youth Institute in Morganton. As of April 30, some 144 young people ages 17 and under were in the prison system, most at Western, which also has a school and other programs geared toward youth. But Western has older ěyouthsî as well. It holds more than 700 inmates altogether, so the 16- and 17-year-olds are in the minority among inmates who can be as old as 22.
And the state does not have a separate prison for female teens. They are held at the N.C. Correctional Institution for Women in Raleigh ó even more reason to steer 16- and 17-year-olds away from the adult system.
The legislation would not send all these teens through the juvenile system; those charged with the more serious felonies would continue to be treated as adults, as they should be. The juvenile system should be used to rehabilitate misguided youths ó not to harbor dangerous criminals. Raise the Age legislation recognizes that important distinction.

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