Are young criminals being punished too harshly in North Carolina?
It’s a question that’s been on the minds of many policymakers, political leaders, and interested citizens in our state in recent months. The spring decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that forbade automatic life sentences without parole for juveniles spurred greater interest in the issue.
On the one side of the dispute are advocates who believe that showing greater leniency toward juveniles crime would be a grave social error. Any youth who commits so serious a crime to merit trial as an adult and a sentence to adult prison is clearly a lost soul who cannot be trusted on the streets. Also, releasing this person at age 18 and clearing his record only sends a message to other potential young thugs that their crimes, however horrific, will also be wiped away after a few years in juvenile detention.
On the other side are advocates who say that the present system merely perpetuates the problems. Locking young people in adult prisons gives no meaningful chance to rehabilitate a troubled life. Children who commit crimes will not be deterred by the threat of harsh punishment—indeed, being treated as a hardened adult criminal can be a badge of honor for teenagers.
Now Youth Today, a professional newspaper for social workers and others in the youth service field, has entered the discussion with an editorial piece by Tamar Birckhead, an associate professor of law at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Prof. Birckhead points out that a single murder case in 1992 triggered a massive public outcry, and in response the legislature lowered the age at which young people could be tried under adult rules to 13 years old.
Has twenty years of this experiment worked? North Carolina defense attorneys have not noticed any sharp drop in teenage crime in the last twenty years. Prof. Birckhead herself notes that the “consequences of an adult conviction are serious, long-lasting, and potentially life-threatening for young offenders and that laws allowing such prosecutions are ineffective at deterring crime and reducing recidivism.”
Ultimately, Prof. Birckhead fails to achieve a meeting of minds with North Carolina citizens who are driven by fear of crime to demand ever-greater punishment and harsher treatment of all criminals, regardless of offense and irrespective of age. “Fry them,” some readers demanded in regard to young criminals. “Soon enough,” Prof. Birckhead writes, “my rational response devolved into frustration and despair at the insensitivity and ignorance expressed in the comments.”
If we are to make any headway on this issue, we have to work together in a cooperative spirit. Blaming parents or youth culture isn’t helpful—we need to focus less on blame, and more on developing solutions that work in the context of North Carolina as it is today. It’s a challenge both for today’s leaders and the next generation.