A coalition of education advocates recently filed a civil rights complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice challenging the discriminatory disciplinary practices of the Wake County Public School System. The complaint is part of an effort to dismantle a “school-to-prison pipeline” in which transgressions traditionally resolved in principals’ offices are now adjudicated in courthouses and demerits and detention are replaced with criminal charges and incarceration.
While the school-to-prison pipeline exists in many states across our country, its destructive impact is made much worse in North Carolina because our state’s maximum age of juvenile jurisdiction is exceptionally low, ending at age 15. In fact, North Carolina is now the only state in the nation in which every 16- and 17-year-old charged with an unlawful offense is prosecuted as an adult. This failure to recognize children as children is indefensible and has resulted in tens of thousands of 16- and 17-year olds accused of minor and nonviolent offenses being unnecessarily ensnared in our state’s criminal justice system.
As an advocate for North Carolinians with criminal records, it is through working with the adults that these children become years and even decades later that I have come to understand the heavy toll of not “raising the age.” For these men and women, it is rarely the direct consequences of their criminal justice involvement—incarceration, probation, fines, etc.—that haunt them. Ironically, the sentences imposed on young, nonviolent offenders within the criminal justice system are significantly less arduous than the conditions of supervision typical of juvenile justice adjudications. Instead, it is the collateral consequences of their criminal records that perpetually trouble these individuals—hundreds of state-imposed civil disabilities and countless barriers to opportunity confront these men and women years after serving their criminal sentences.
In our electronic age, a criminal record of any sort serves as an everlasting scarlet letter, isolating individuals from gainful employment, affordable housing, and other resources essential to productive citizenship. Today, more than 90% of employers conduct criminal background checks and often deny applicants based on long-ago convictions and even dismissed charges, which remain on an individual’s criminal record in North Carolina. Similarly, hundreds of civil disabilities affecting everything from public employment and public housing to foster care and adoption to occupational licensures are triggered by these criminal records.
Every week I meet men and women struggling to move beyond childhood mistakes that continue to plague their lives and derail their dreams. For many of these individuals, their inability to move beyond their youthful mistakes is largely the result of one simple fact: North Carolina is their home. Had they committed these same offenses in Virginia, Tennessee, Mississippi, or now any other state in our nation, they would not be burdened with the weight of a criminal record.
The examples of good people who have had their lives derailed by North Carolina’s obsolete law are numerous and tragic: a 35-year-old nursing assistant denied employment because of a misdemeanor conviction from when she was 17-years old; a 22-year-old expectant mother denied public housing based on a 6-year-old dismissed charge; a 16-year-old boy whose mug shot appears every time someone “googles” his name despite his exoneration; a 48-year-old man free of charges for 31 years, but still denied job after job based on a felony larceny conviction from age 17.
Deprived of so many opportunities, the lives of these adults are largely defined by the poor choices they made as children—or, in some cases, the poor choices they were merely accused of having made. This isolation from opportunity permanently positions these individuals as second-class citizens, drastically limits their abilities to provide for their families and communities, and contributes to our state’s revolving door criminal justice system.
The harsh reality of current North Carolina law and the need to raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction to age 17 for misdemeanors and low-level felonies is now becoming apparent to advocates and observers across the ideological spectrum. Citing the costs of such a revolving door criminal justice system, a 2011 study, “Improving Juvenile Justice: Finding More Effective Options for North Carolina’s Young Offenders,” commissioned by the conservative John Locke Foundation calculated the likely savings of raising the age of juvenile jurisdiction in North Carolina to be $52.3 million.
As the study noted: “For the vast majority of 16- and 17-year-old offenders, the appropriate venue to address their offenses is the juvenile justice system. It’s appropriate for juveniles because it leads to better outcomes. It’s appropriate for North Carolina’s citizens because it creates a safer state for all.”
With such broad-based support, our state’s lawmakers have the opportunity to raise the age and ensure that another generation of children is not plagued by this costly and archaic law.
To learn more about the bipartisan Raise the Age campaign, visit www.raisetheagenc.com.
Daniel Bowes is an attorney at the North Carolina Justice Center’s Second Chance Initiative.