Trying 16- and 17-year-olds in juvenile court instead of adult criminal court would reduce the risk of recidivism and increase public safety, says Tamar Birckhead, assistant professor at the UNC School of Law. North Carolina remains the only state in the United States to try 16- and 17-year-olds in adult criminal courts with no option to ask for a hearing in juvenile court.
Birckhead has laid the foundation of a call for reform with an article in the September 2008 edition of the
North Carolina Law Review
that reviews the history of arguments for and against raising the age of juvenile court jurisdiction to 18.
"One of the most striking revelations of my research is that resistance to raising the age of juvenile court jurisdiction in North Carolina has been consistent from 1919 to the present. While the fundamental arguments of reformers have been basically the same during this period, the pattern has been recurring: well-considered proposals to raise the age have consistently failed to bring about change. North Carolina is now at the bottom of the heap nationally on this issue. Our legislators should feel a moral imperative at this point to take action," says Birckhead, who teaches the UNC School of Law Juvenile Justice Clinic and is a member of the Advisory Board for the North Carolina Juvenile Defender.
Birckhead points out that the American Bar Association also recommends that offenders under 18 be tried in juvenile courts. Older teens who commit serious crimes could still be tried as adults on a case-by-case basis, but Birckhead emphasizes that only four percent of crimes committed by this age group are crimes against other people.
"Raising the age will not affect the state's ability to transfer juveniles 13 and older to criminal court when they are charged with a felony," she says. "And while some people worry that juvenile courts might coddle young offenders, in practice, children in juvenile court are frequently given more rigorous probationary terms than 16 and 17-year-olds charged with the same offense in adult court."
Older teens who are tried in adult court face significant barriers to employment and education for the rest of their lives and are less likely to have access to rehabilitation.
In contrast, when youth are tried in juvenile court they often receive intensive probation with supervision and rehabilitation such as education, mental health services and substance abuse programs.
"Recent polls have shown that the general public supports raising the age to 18 and recognizes that spending on rehabilitation and treatment for youth, rather than trying and incarcerating them with adults, will ultimately save tax dollars," says Birckhead. "For me, the bottom line is that whatever they are alleged to have done, children are still children -- emotionally, neurologically and cognitively."
-November 3, 2008