At the midpoint of the 180-mile March for Justice, its organizer, Soffiyah Elijah, was overwhelmed. She was simultaneously trying to find the proper turn on a back road in a Hudson Valley town, coordinate with the caretaker of a 105-year-old woman who wanted to join the march and figure out where to find a laundromat that would stay open late.
Not since the opening of the first juvenile reform school in 1886 has our nation’s approach to confining delinquent youth experienced such fundamental and widespread change. From California to New York, states are reducing juvenile placements, shuttering facilities and shifting money and kids to county control. If done thoughtfully, it’s a trend that holds much promise. This national realignment movement took a huge step forward on Sept. 1, when New York state’s “Close to Home” law went into effect.
When I first began practicing in juvenile delinquency court in North Carolina eight years ago, I was shocked to discover that the maximum age of jurisdiction is 15. This means if you are 16 or 17 and charged with a criminal offense, you are automatically prosecuted in adult criminal court. There are no exceptions, no possibility of waiving the rule, and no second chances. So, when a 10th grader pushes another student in the hallway of a school that has a zero-tolerance policy, the 16-year-old will face misdemeanor assault charges in criminal district court. Likewise, a 17-year-old prosecuted for stealing a bike from a neighbor’s garage would face charges of breaking and entering as well as larceny.