Definition of “Adult Criminal”
A move is afoot to change North Carolina’s definition of an “adult criminal.” Currently, if you are old enough to drive a car, you are old enough to be treated as an adult when it comes to criminal offenses. This means that 16 and 17-year-olds are adjudicated in adult criminal court when they are accused of committing a crime.
For many years, left-leaning politicians and child advocate groups have pushed for increasing North Carolina’s age of majority to 18. They want all 16 and 17-year-olds sent to juvenile court with its secret proceedings and bureaucracy. This means that even drunk driving 16-year-olds would go to “Juvee” where juvenile court counselors (specially assigned probation officers), assistant district attorneys and District Court judges run the show.
Right to Jury Trial Important
As a long-time criminal defense attorney who has represented thousands of 16 and 17-year-olds, I am completely opposed to this idea. My reasoning is simple: I believe that 16 and 17-year-olds deserve the right to a jury trial when they are accused of a crime. Juvenile court does not give these young adults what would otherwise be considered a constitutional right to “a trial by jury.”
At first blush, it may not sound like a big deal to treat these young adults as children. However, to any parent it should be a very big deal. If your 16/17-year-old son or daughter is currently charged with driving while impaired, misdemeanor larceny or simple assault, they rate a jury trial. This will not be the case if opponents of the current system get their way. In the brave new world they propose, your young adult will enter into the secret wonderland of Juvenile Court. There, District Court judges look at opinions from juvenile court counselors and other bureaucrats in deciding what “justice” the child receives. If you don’t think the judgment is fair, there is no appeal to a jury trial in Superior Court, as currently exists in the adult system.
Current Shortcomings of System
Opponents of the current system argue that adult court jurisdiction of 16 and 17-year-olds results in “poor rehabilitation prospects.” What they rarely explain is that few juveniles are ever sent to jail. Most crimes are minor misdemeanors that rarely, if ever, result in incarceration in the adult system.
For the few individuals who are incarcerated, the adult system may or may not be the best choice when it comes to punishment. These youthful offenders may have education requirements or need mental treatment that may not be provided in an adult prison. Additionally, due to their tender years, they may not have the ability to protect themselves from older, more aggressive individuals.
A Better Solution
There is a better solution. Instead of taking away the right to a jury trial from 16 and 17-year-olds, why not simply reform the sentencing laws? North Carolina’s adult criminal corrections system just went through a massive restructuring with the new Justice Reinvestment Act. However, the Act did not deal with the sentencing needs of 16 and 17-year-olds in the adult system. This situation can and should be addressed at the next convening of the North Carolina legislature. Judges, with the input of defense attorneys, prosecutors, and probation officers could make broad sentencing decisions on the proper type of facility (adult or juvenile), education needs, and mental health treatment for young adult offenders. The law could even be expanded to include the other teenagers no one talks about (18 and 19-year-olds) who may also have special needs.
The bottom line is that part of the system, i.e., young adult sentencing, may need to be revisited. However, there is no justification for taking away a young person’s constitutional right to a jury trial by needlessly expanding the jurisdiction of juvenile courts with all of their secrecy and bureaucracy. It was Thomas Jefferson who said: “I consider trial by jury as the only anchor yet devised by man, by which a government can be held to the principles of its constitution.”
Thom Goolsby is a state senator, attorney and law professor from Wilmington. He chairs the Senate Oversight Committee on Justice and Public Safety.