The state of North Carolina has taken another big step towards improving its criminal justice system. Governor Roy Cooper recently signed a bill into law that raised the minimum age of prosecution for children from six to eight.
However, the change falls short of raising the minimum age of prosecution to 10, as was initially proposed. One of the primary sponsors of the bill, Rep. Danny Britt said that prosecutors objected to raising the age to 10, as did some lawmakers in the House.
Governor Cooper’s North Carolina Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice recommended setting the minimum age for prosecution at 12. The National Juvenile Justice Network recommends a minimum age of 14.
The new law splits the difference. Now, 8-year-olds can face accusations in juvenile court that are equivalent to felonies in adult courts. However, only kids 10 and up can face accusations that would amount to certain low-level felonies or misdemeanors in the adult system. This is meant to preserve prosecutors’ right to file charges against 8- and 9-year-olds who they say commit serious crimes.
Does this bring North Carolina in line with other states?
Yes and no. Before the change, North Carolina had the lowest set age for prosecution of any state. Now, it shares that designation with Arizona, Nevada and Washington, which have set their minimum age at 8, as well. Twenty-nine states have no minimum age for prosecuting kids. Thirteen set the minimum age at 10, 11 or 12.
How many children will this effect?
According to Rep. Britt, as many as 1,000 kids every three years could avoid prosecution altogether because of the new law. Over the past three years, about 30 kids between 8 and 10 were accused of offenses equivalent to serious felonies. Kids like those could still be prosecuted.
What are kids doing? According to the News & Observer, many of the serious felonies that could still be charged involve assault or a sex offense.
Do we need to be sending pre-teens to jail?
There are a lot of complex issues involved when it comes to prosecuting children. There is no question that some kids get into outsize trouble. The state may need to take action if the parents can’t handle the situation on their own. However, it’s not at all clear that prosecuting kids – even in the juvenile justice system – is the best way to handle the problem.
For one thing, kids this young may lack the fundamental ability yet to know right from wrong. They certainly lack the ability to reliably predict the consequences of their actions. They may lack the capacity to understand the juvenile justice system. That could mean they are unable to meaningfully contribute to their defense. They probably can’t be expected to protect their rights.
Moreover, prosecutors have gone way too far in some cases. They point to serious felonies like assault to explain why pre-teens need to be prosecuted, but the News & Observer found cases that should never have been brought into the justice system at all:
- A 6-year-old arrested for picking a tulip at a bus stop
- A 9-year-old kid with autism arrested for throwing a pencil at a teacher
- Kids who have broken windows
Advocates plan to keep the pressure on for additional change
Some of the sponsors of the original bill say they are pleased that progress has been made but plan to keep pushing for an older minimum age.
“There are too many children being shuttled off to detention centers,” said Sen. Mujtaba Mohammed, an initial sponsor of the bill who started his career defending kids in court.
“These are young children that need to be directed to services or counseling,” said Rep. Marcia Morey, a former district judge.
What do you think? Is 8 an appropriate age at which to prosecute a child? Under what circumstances should pre-teens be prosecuted?