NEW YORK — The students at Enloe High School in Raleigh, N.C., were gearing up for the end of the school year in May 2013 when some of them devised a senior prank. They’d begun promoting an upcoming water balloon fight on social media, and the school administration had gotten wind of it and called in police reinforcement.
Seven youths were arrested that day and charged with disorderly conduct.
One student, 17-year-old Justin Devon Mangum, was charged with assault and battery for throwing a water balloon that hit a security guard. And because this prank took place in North Carolina, where the age of criminal responsibility is set at 16, the two 17-year-olds and five 16-year-olds taken into custody now have misdemeanors on their records that won’t be sealed by the courts, as is typically done for minors that age in other states.
Brandy Bynum, the policy director of NC Child, has been working toward passing Raise the Age legislation since 2006. She points out that kids like those arrested at Enloe High are going to be asked about their criminal history when applying to colleges and by potential employers.
“Because of our state’s laws, kids from around the nation can have access to our wonderful universities and employment, and our own kids are barred from them,” Bynum said.
North Carolina and New York are the only two states that treat 16-year-olds as adults in the criminal justice system. As the research piles up that young people’s brains aren’t fully developed until their mid-20s and that young people who go through the juvenile system are less likely to recidivate, activists and state legislators are feeling the pressure to catch up to the rest of the country.
In the latest legislative session, a bill to raise the age for misdemeanor offenses, like the disorderly conduct charges of the Enloe high schoolers, passed the state House of Representatives but didn’t come up for a Senate vote before the session ended.
Bynum still sees the bill’s House passage as an important milestone.
“This is the first bill that has passed a chamber of the assembly in the eight years I’ve worked on it,” she said. “This was a really big deal that we were able to get it through the House.”
Rep. Marilyn Avila, a Republican who sponsored the House bill, says this is all part of a yearslong process that’s common to get a piece of legislation passed.
“The Senate seemed to be the chamber that was going to be the hardest lift in getting [the Raise the Age bill] passed,” Avila said. “We’ll start in the House again next year, and I hope I’ll be able to have a companion bill in the Senate so we can be working on them at the same time.”
Avila said her team looked at similar bills across the country, including Connecticut, which passed Raise the Age legislation in 2007, when they were coming up with a bill to fit North Carolina’s specific needs.
“There’s no sense of reinventing the wheel, and you have the advantage of seeing what didn’t work as well as what did work and picking the best of what’s been done,” Avila said.
The bill, the Young Offenders Rehabilitation Act, would only raise the age of criminal responsibility for misdemeanor offenders, and not low-level felony offenders, which were included in a previous version of the bill.
“The way we started the piece of legislation, it was misdemeanors and low-level felonies that didn’t involved violence. But the word felony just has bad connotations for people,” Avila said. “The felony was a real sticking point, so I said we can compromise.”
The compromise was based on data showing that in North Carolina in 2010, 80 percent of the nearly 10,000 convictions for 16- and 17-year-olds were for misdemeanor offenses, she said.
“When I understood the damage we were doing by giving criminal records at such a young age, for these minor offenses,” Avila said, “that’s a pretty hard slap on the wrist.”
Still, the bill was not unopposed. The North Carolina Sheriff’s Association has been a vocal opponent. Eddie Caldwell, the association’s vice president, said it mostly comes down to money.
“What’s been missing in this whole discussion is the funding and process to do this,” Caldwell said. “In North Carolina, historically we don’t pass new programs with no money to implement them. That’s a backwards approach.”
Even if the bill had passed in the latest session, the laws wouldn’t go into effect until 2019 for 16-year-olds and 2020 for 17-year-olds, which gives the state ample time to come up with a plan to put the changes into place. The estimated cost is $16.5 million in the first year of implementation, and $55.5 million in the second.
Bynum and other advocates note that in the long term, reducing recidivism rates will save taxpayers money. Data collected in Connecticut from the years since they implemented similar laws supports this assertion.
She also points to the social cost of treating 16- and 17-year-olds as adults. Congress’ Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 found that juveniles were five times more likely to be sexually assaulted when they were housed in adult facilities, “often within the first 48 hours of incarceration.”
An ACLU report released earlier this year evaluated North Carolina’s compliance with PREA. They found that of the 100 counties they requested records from, only nine had any policies in place to comply with PREA.
Caldwell said the sheriffs also see a distinction between first-time offenders and what he calls “career criminals,” who have been arrested more than once.
“The sheriffs are completely committed to any effort that will rehabilitate offenders and turn their lives around,” he said, “but we need to be realistic that some people are just mean, and those people are a threat to your family and mine and need to be off the streets.”
Bynum said it’s important still to recognize that these offenders are children, not adults.
“We aren’t saying we’re gonna let these kids off the hook; just what any parent would want for their child,” Bynum said. “It’s not about the fact they don’t know right from wrong, it’s about whether they fully understand the consequences of the impulsive decisions they make.”
Avila said opposition is just part of the process of creating legislation; she remains optimistic.
“We have looked at a lot of different programs in the states around us and across the country that have worked. If you go back and follow their history it was the same thing — oh no, it’s soft on crime; oh no, it’s so expensive,” Avila said. “And then with the facts, everybody begins to see the light of day.”
Bynum and her team at NC Child are engaged in a campaign to spread the word and educate parents and others about the issue’s importance. She said that often parents don’t know about the specifics of the law until their child is arrested, usually for a minor offense.
“We’re talking about an issue that impacts every 16- and 17-year-old,” Bynum said. “The biggest thing is educating people — raising awareness about the impact that this policy has on all of us.
“It’s about North Carolina moving in the right direction,” she said. “We are not blazing a trail here.”