By L.A. Williams
Christian Action League
June 1, 2017
RALEIGH – Country music artist and former foster kid Jimmy Wayne likes to remind listeners that “children are 30 percent of our population but 100 percent of our future.” North Carolina Sen. Tamara Barringer (R-Wake) cited his quote Tuesday at a press conference promoting a bill that could change how the state’s legal system treats young people, specifically 16-and 17-year-olds who face charges for misdemeanors or nonviolent felonies.
Currently charged as adults, these teens would join their younger counterparts in the juvenile justice system under Senate Bill 564, the Juvenile Justice Reinvestment Act, also referred to as “Raise the Age.” Its companion bill, HB 280, passed the House 104-8 earlier this month. And Barringer said she’s hopeful the Senate will follow suit and bring North Carolina in line with the rest of the nation.
“North Carolina is the last state in the country that charges 16- and 17-year-olds as adults. What we need to do is let them have that second chance,” Barringer told the media. “Once these children have a record, they are not going to be able to get into college; they are not going to be able to get a job; they are not going to be able to go into the military. And so what happens is that, once they have made this mistake and they are convicted of a crime, they are in a position to not be able to move forward.”
Barringer called on the Rev. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League, and the Rev. Bruce Stanley, president of the Methodist Home for Children, to address the benefits of keeping youthful offenders out of the adult legal system.
“The Holy Scriptures teach that justice requires proportionality. In other words, there should be different kinds and degrees of punishment for offenders of the law,” Dr. Creech told the press. “It is not proportional, sensible or moral that our state’s criminal justice system treats 16- and 17-year-olds as adults when they commit minor, low-level crimes. It results in far more drastic and permanent consequences for them.”
He said studies have shown that the frontal cortex of the brain, which controls reasoning and helps us think before we act, is still developing during the teen years and even into early adulthood.
“This doesn’t mean youth can’t make good decisions or discern between good and evil. Neither does it mean they aren’t morally responsible for their behavior,” Creech explained. “But it does mean that parents, teachers, authority figures, and even policy makers, should be aware of this mitigating factor when dealing with them.”
He said the proposed legislation is pro-family, in part because it allows for intervention from parents and authorities to try to address the reasons behind the teen’s behavior rather than cutting the family out of the legal process.
The Rev. Stanley echoed Creech’s support for the measure, emphasizing the negative results of placing 16-and 17-year-old offenders into adult prison populations.
He said Methodist Children’s Home staff members often tell young people, “Show us your friends and we’ll show you your future,” as a way to point out how much they are influenced by those around them.
“We are always encouraging them to surround themselves with a healthy community that would include church – that would include high-performing adults, members of their family and to avoid associating with and becoming friends with people that would lead them into trouble,” Stanley said. “What’s the implication when you place a 16- or 17-year-old into an adult prison population? With whom are you surrounding them? Whether the state realizes it or not, we are showing them a version of their future and a horrific and terrible version of their future.”
Instead of placing them with older, more experienced offenders who could lead them further into the criminal lifestyle, Stanley said it is crucial that these young people have an opportunity to be surrounded by healthy community.
“If you put them in a therapeutic environment with interventions, there is going to be accountability for what they have done, but there is also going to be teaching and training and somebody to show them a different way that they ought to go,” he said.
Dr. Creech admitted that youth “can do some really stupid things in life.”
“That’s why we don’t need to respond stupidly when they do,” he urged. “Let’s safeguard our collective future by passing this legislation.”