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Editorial: Raise the age for juveniles

More than 90 percent of North Carolina parents think their children are juveniles until age 18. Not so. A 16- or 17-year-old who gets in trouble with the law in this state faces grown-up consequences — even for a misdemeanor. Lawmakers should change state law to use more common sense in dealing with teens.

North Carolina is now the only state in the nation that, by law, treats kids as young as 16 as adults in the criminal justice system. Whatever the crime, they are charged as adults and tried as adults — and burdened for life with an adult criminal record. That does not make sense.

Mark Martin, chief justice of the N.C. Supreme Court, on Monday joined the bipartisan chorus of voices backing House Bill 280 to raise the age at which a person is automatically prosecuted as an adult to 18. The bill was sponsored by a bipartisan group of legislators and is supported by many judges, court officials and law enforcement officers.

“All of the data, all of the professionals we trust each and every day to keep us safe, they are uniform in their recommendation that we need to take this step,” Martin said.

Compared to adult courts and processes, the juvenile justice system offers young people more treatment and counseling, which reduces the risk of repeating their crimes. The young person benefits and so does society at large.

Martin’s Commission on the Administration of Law and Justice supported raising the age for low-level felonies and misdemeanors — the majority of the crimes committed by 16- and 17-year-olds. The group’s report said raising the age will make the state safer, is supported by scientific research and would remove a competitive disadvantage that North Carolina places on its citizens.

The change involves much more than simply changing an age guideline. Law enforcement officers may need additional training, and the juvenile justice system will have to be beefed up for an influx of more young people.

Here’s what the law must not do: coddle hardened young criminals, slap them on the wrist and release them to run amok again while keeping their criminal record secret from the public — one of the major features of the juvenile justice system.Teens charged with violent felonies must still be tried as adults and held publicly accountable. Legal experts say House Bill 280 meets those expectations and more. It’s time to rally behind our young people and raise the age.

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