As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of In re Gault this month, it is a great opportunity to take stock of how far we have come and where we stand on juvenile justice issues in North Carolina today.
In re Gault enshrined in American jurisprudence an important due process “floor” for juveniles by recognizing that they have at least the same due process rights as adults in our criminal justice system. As a result, juveniles today are receiving more due process protections in our courts.
North Carolina’s juvenile justice system also has made numerous reforms over the past two decades and is more focused on rehabilitation than it has been ever before. This means that more young people are getting set back on track and held accountable for their actions without having their lives upended and their futures put at risk.
It also looks like 2017 may be the year that North Carolina joins the rest of the country in “Raising the Age.” As of last month, North Carolina became the last state in the country that automatically prosecutes both 16- and 17-year-olds as adults, no matter how minor the offense. The data on our current approach consistently shows that it leads to worse outcomes, makes our communities less safe, and costs taxpayers more.
Disability Rights NC cares about this issue because a significant number of the youth in our criminal justice system have disabilities. Moreover, children with disabilities already have a hard enough time accessing housing, education, and employment during those crucial transition years into adulthood and beyond. When we further saddle those children with the 1,000 “collateral consequences” of having an adult criminal record and the trauma of incarcerating them with adults—where they are significantly more likely to be physically or sexually victimized and manipulated by gangs—we set those children up for failure. It increases their future reliance on government assistance and makes it more likely that they will resort to future criminal activity and re-enter the criminal justice system. That ends up costing North Carolina taxpayers even more in the long run and has serious repercussions for families throughout our state.
We are privileged to be part of a broad coalition focused on Raising the Age this year—including the North Carolina courts, the North Carolina Office of the Juvenile Defender, law enforcement, and stakeholders in every corner of the political spectrum. We are working to support the Juvenile Justice Reinvestment Act (HB280), which would Raise the Age to 18 in North Carolina for all but the most serious, violent felonies. It would keep 97% of the youth who get mixed up with the law in the juvenile system and get our kids the supports they need to grow into successful, contributing members of society. That bill passed the North Carolina House last week with overwhelming support. It now moves on to the Senate, where we will continue the work of bringing meaningful change to North Carolina’s youth.
Young people in our criminal justice system, and particularly those with disabilities, are the most vulnerable defendants in our criminal justice system. That will never change. Nor will the fundamental truth that the law is at its most when it protects the least of us. If there is one lesson we can learn from working with these kids—whether through protecting their basic rights, making practical reforms to focus on rehabilitation, or recognizing under the law that they are, in fact, children—it is that there is always room for more justice.
Matthew Herr is an attorney and policy analyst with Disability Rights NC. Follow him at @MattHerrTweets.