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Youthful folly, crime and the need for justice

Charlotte Observer By Ralph Reed Strong families play a pivotal role in society. They hold us accountable, support us in hard times and ensure that future generations are equipped to achieve more than their parents. Unfortunately in at least one respect North Carolina’s criminal justice system inadvertently undermines the family and the youth that are its charge. It does so by automatically treating youthful offenders as adults, even for nonviolent and first offenses. North Carolina is one of only two states that automatically prosecute all 16- and 17-year-olds as adults – even for offenses as minor as a schoolyard scuffle or stealing a bag of potato chips. This antiquated system leads to young lives damaged, futures permanently marred by criminal records, and the very real potential of being incarcerated with hardened criminals, whose bad influence will lead them to more crime. When a teen-aged youth commits a minor crime, the first imperative is to restore family discipline and foster moral reformation. Involvement in the adult criminal justice system with all it portends should be a last resort, not a first resort. Fortunately, North Carolina’s political leaders know the need for reform. In May, House Speaker Thom Tillis and Rep. Marilyn Avila helped win a lopsided, bipartisan victory for a bill (H725) that would move 16 and 17-year-old misdemeanants to the juvenile system. The bill is now in the Senate. To be clear: this bill does not grant lenience for youthful offenders. Those who commit a crime will still pay the penalty. Felonies and violent crimes like murder and rape committed by offenders ages 16 and over will still be prosecuted in adult courts. But youthful misdemeanors will no longer clog our adult courts – and we’ll no longer herd those young people into jails with hardened criminals. For families and taxpayers, this is simply common sense. It is hardly a news flash that teens often lack maturity and a sense of responsibility. They are especially susceptible to “running with the wrong crowd.” Youthful indiscretions are not the same as the actions of a career criminal. Yet in North Carolina these youth are required to be sent to the adult system. Most often a judge will simply grant the teen probation – no strict supervision, no age-appropriate supports, no special concern for the transformational power of families, churches, or faith-based ministries to get these kids back on track. It’s no wonder that under the status quo too many young people drift further into bad behavior and commit even more crimes. Meantime, those who encounter adult criminals in the system are exposed to all manner of destructive values. The juvenile system is better at giving young people a second chance while insisting on appropriate punishment, rehabilitation and restitution for victims. It strictly monitors kids’ successful return to the mainstream. It involves families. And it keeps in sight the redemptive goal of returning young people to society. This policy would also help the state recover untold millions as a result of the improved opportunities for teens. I urge the state Senate and Gov. Pat McCrory to give N.C. children and families a brighter future.

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