A new report on school-based arrests in Wake County just dealt another blow to North Carolina’s outdated and counterproductive policy of charging all 16- and 17-year-olds as adults.
The troubling report shows more than 400 school-based arrests and referrals to the adult court system during the 2014-2015 school year.
What’s worse is that African American students comprised 69 percent of the total referrals to the court system despite making up only about one quarter of the total student population. This disparity is largely a result of discriminatory in-school policing—if a Black student is accused of theft, he or she is 1.7 times more likely to be arrested than other students accused of theft.
While many news outlets covered this report, few described the implications for students when they are charged and convicted as an adult for something as minor as petty theft or a schoolyard fight. In these cases, students receive a permanent criminal record, which can jeopardize their future by erecting barriers to higher education, employment, military service and even finding a place to live. If we want young people who are getting in trouble at school to get their lives on track, then the last thing we should do is saddle them with a criminal record.
So what can we do to alleviate this problem? The Wake County School Board has teamed up with Wake County District Court Judge Vince Rozier and Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman to craft an agreement that will divert some first-time offenders away from the adult court system into teen court or mediation where they will receive treatment to help address the underlying cause of the offense. This is a great first step and all involved deserve credit for the initiative.
But this program will only be available to a subset of kids in Wake County and it won’t do anything for kids in other parts of the state where the program won’t be available at all. The bottom line is the North Carolina needs to change its policy of charging all 16- and 17-year-olds as adults. We’re one of only two states left in the country that persists in this ineffective practice, and it’s not hard to understand why the vast majority of states have updated their policies.
Youth in the juvenile justice system are less likely to commit additional crimes than youth in the adult criminal justice system. This is likely because they receive treatment and support—with parental involvement—for the underlying issues that lead to criminal behavior. Additionally, a permanent criminal record can lead to later criminal behavior because it makes getting an education and finding a job much more difficult.
Raising the age of juvenile jurisdiction from 16 to 18 has bipartisan support in the state legislature and a new task force on mental health is considering including this policy change in its recommendations to the legislature this spring. Let’s hope this most recent data from the biggest school system in the state will the tipping point for finally getting this done.
Rob Thompson is the Senior Policy and Communications Advisor at NC Child.