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Editorial: Teens face obstacles — set juveniles on right path

Not everyone with bad or weak parents winds up in prison. Nor does every high school dropout or unwed parent acquire a criminal record.
But those are powerful indicators of trouble ahead. Any practical effort that can keep at-risk young people from winding up in prison ó and having children of their own destined to do the same ó deserves widespread support.
First, thereís the legislative approach. North Carolina has declared 16-year-olds adults in the criminal justice system since 1919, long after other states raised the age to 18. Studies suggest that being in the adult system increases the likelihood that 16- and 17-year-olds will break the law again. They already have a record, unlike their juvenile counterparts, and theyíve had less opportunity for rehabilitation.
The wisdom of giving a second chance to young people who have committed nonviolent crimes is accepted more and more. The proposal to change the stateís age of juvenile jurisdiction has some momentum. However, putting more young people into the juvenile system is an expensive proposition in the short run. Although it could prevent even costlier incarceration later, state budget makers have to deal with the economy of today.
That was part of the impetus behind the Justice Reinvestment Act passed by the General Assembly this year. Estimated to save the state $290 million over the next six years, the law restructures probation and sentencing with an eye toward more community-based programs and stronger probation supervision while putting fewer inmates in the stateís prisons. The act had bipartisan support; it, too, is supposed to reduce recidivism.
Thatís all well and good, but what can we do ó the people who arenít legislators or judges or probation officers?
The answer is becoming a mentor to a young person. Having the attention of a positive adult role model may be just the nudge a young person needs to get past the obstacles in his or her life. Communities in Schools and the Rowan County Youth Services Bureau both have a need for volunteers to act as mentors.
The people who succeed despite rough beginnings often do so because someone along the way inspired them. Someone paid attention and took an interest. We can do that one by one as mentors, and we can do it collectively as involved citizens pushing for better laws and programs. The alternative is to look the other way while young people turn to a life of crime for lack of any better direction.

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