When Are Criminals Adults?

North Carolina is one of three states that automatically treat 16-year-olds as adults. A proposal by the North Carolina Sentencing Commission, the group designated to advise the General Assembly on matters involving sentencing, would give district attorneys the discretion to treat 13 to 16-year-olds as either jeuveniles or adults. The N&O has a good summary of the proposal, but the gist of the controversy is that due to youth, young teenagers may make poor decisions based on youth that might not justify being sent to adult prisons while young teenagers tend to commit the most violent crimes, again due in part to youth.

Whether these recommendations are good policy is a much different question than whether they will be adopted, which is not very high given the "law and order" demands of the populace. By the way, the law and order demands of the populace is what led to the need for the Sentencing Commission to begin its work in trying to bring common sense to our state's sentencing structure and normalize prison populations.


The bottom line

Sentencing commission projections show that if the age limit were raised, the number of 16- and 17-year-olds found delinquent and committed to training school could surpass the 450 now in custody of the Department of Juvenile Justice. But it also could free more than 1,000 adult prison beds.

Estimates for incarceration for one year run around $20,000, so 1,000 beds equal $20 million a year.


I would say that an adult is an adult. If you aren't old enough to drink, you aren't old enough to be an adult. If you aren't old enough to vote, you aren't old enough to be an adult. If you aren't old enough to be drafted, you aren't old enough to be an adult.

I know that every good and excellent thing in the world stands moment by moment on the razor-edge of danger and must be fought for. ~ Thornton Wilder

Jesus Swept ticked me off. Too short. I loved the characters and then POOF it was over.


You left out "old enough to drive" but I guess I can see why! Also, you mentioned "[i]f you aren't old enough to drink, you aren't old enough to be an adult." THAT would raise the age of criminal responsibility to 21! Yikes!

Oh, and I don't think you can be drafted at any age right now, so I'm not sure that's really an issue.

Look, I know that my comments above sound snarky. Hell, they ARE snarky. But the point is not so snarky -- we've got several ages of majority floating around out there. 16 for some things, 18 for other things, 21 for yet other things. If you're going to argue that they should all be the same ("an adult is an adult"), well, okay, but I'm not sure how many people are going to get on board with treating 20 year-old criminals as juveniles (or letting 16 year-olds buy Jack Daniels). Otherwise, we're left with making judgments about when young adults are mature enough to do certain things. Which, of course, I think the people of the Great State of North Carolina have already done.

I think my response was snarky as well.

My point was to show how vague and poorly-thought out "adult" is. If someone isn't responsible to vote - what are they responsible for? I don't think there is a great resolution to this, but the whole idea of putting kids in jail for life as adults doesn't sit well with me.

I know that every good and excellent thing in the world stands moment by moment on the razor-edge of danger and must be fought for. ~ Thornton Wilder

Jesus Swept ticked me off. Too short. I loved the characters and then POOF it was over.

We agree on something

Another one: I've been paying taxes since I was 14- 4 years of which I was subject to taxation without representation.

I'll keep it to that lest you get to depressed about our being in agreement on something. :-)

taxation, good point.

There was a west wing that had high school students debating with "The President" if they should have the vote, since they were considered old enough to drive and pay taxes.

I know that every good and excellent thing in the world stands moment by moment on the razor-edge of danger and must be fought for. ~ Thornton Wilder

Jesus Swept ticked me off. Too short. I loved the characters and then POOF it was over.


Were they from the District of Columbia?

Interesting policy debate, but...

... your post reflects a significant error in the cited article about the way in which juvenile cases are handled.

At issue is a proposal by the NC Sentencing Commission which would raise the age of criminal responsibility from 16 to 18. There would still be a process by which the district attorney can *ask* that a juvenile be bound over to superior court to stand trial as an adult, but it is up to a judge and NOT the district attorney to make that decision (in all cases except first degree murder, when binding over the case is mandatory). Thus, the DA does not have "discretion to treat 13 to 16 year-olds as either juveniles or adults." The DA can choose to request that a young criminal be held accountable as an adult, but a district court judge has the ultimate say.

As to whether or not this is good public policy, one would want to study when young minds begin to recognize the criminality of their behavior and have the ability to conform their behavior to such standards. According to the Duke expert (I've forgotten his name) who spoke at the Governor's Crime Commission last week (the meeting at which Susan Katzenelson presented the Sentencing Commission's recommendation and which prompted this N&O story), we need quite a bit of additional research before we can even begin to answer that question.

And while prison beds are expensive, let's not kid ourselves -- raising the age of criminal responsibility will be VERY expensive. Juvenile court cases are extremely resource intensive, requiring huge amounts of time and energy from judges, prosecutors, juvenile court counselors, and other specialized court personnel and community advocates. The young people that they're considering adding to the juvenile systems are committing more crimes than the worst of the existing juvenile offenders, and they recidivate at a higher rate. And you think prison beds are expensive? Just wait until you get the tax bill for building new juvenile detention facilities in counties across the state.

This is not a simple issue. People want to say that, because North Carolina is one of only three states that treats 16 and 17 year-olds as adults in the criminal justice system, we are backward and must change. But people don't want to look at the concrete costs that have to be paid to make such a change.

And all of this is without even going into the impact that this will have on the lives of the victims of the crimes perpetrated by these youthful offenders. Step into a prosecutor's shoes for one day and explain to a victim why the person who robbed them at gunpoint or who raped their daughter isn't going to be held accountable as an adult for their very adult crime because their birthday happens to fall on the wrong side of an arbitrary line. That will become MUCH more common if we raise the age of adult responsibility to 18.

There are many methods available to youthful offenders to wipe their records of criminal convictions based on youthful indiscretions. I fully support these measures because they insure that a mistake at an early age doesn't haunt someone unjustly for the rest of their lives. But this proposal goes too far and, for now, I oppose it.


I don't have an answer to any of this and given the heat on all fronts, I'm steering clear tonight, but I do know this:

Recent research about adolescent brains is shedding new light on behaviors that have long been understood as "well, that's a teenager for you." Brain development from 12 to late teens is very similar to brain development from zero to five . . . and the part of the brain most in flux is the part of the brain responsible for judgment. Adolescent brains haven't kept up with adolescent bodies and the result is a host of challenges we all understand from personal experience.

Drinking is particularly dicey because it affects the development of brains in adolescents the same way it affects brains between conception and birth. People who start drinking as teens are far more likely to be alcoholic adults (controlling for genetic disposition) than those who didn't drink as teens. Some dimensions of judgment are thought to be permanently impaired.

Which is why the Army can attract teens to join an insane war and die on behalf of doddering old chickenshit politicians. No one should be allowed in the Army until they're 21 as far as I'm concerned, which would definitely put an end to the insanity of our current militarism.

I don't know what an adult is, but I do know this: a teenager is not one.

He who was without stupidity

from 13-16 may now cast the first stone.

I'm not being flippant. I know the larger concern is the violent junvenile offender. But the system is clogged and over worked now because of all the "zero tolerance" b.s. laws we think keep us safe these days. Facts is facts and the facts is ... We all screw up when we're young. All of us.

Opinion is opinion and here's mine: The degree of our screw up depends more on the crowd we run with than on wide variations in our internal morality meters. Too many adults forget they were little smart-ass daredevil trouble makers when they were kids, or at least that their brothers and best friends were. I have brothers and nephews who, had they been taken to jail and brought to trial for transgressions that kids are prosecuted for today rather than being handed over to our parents, would not now be contributing tax paying members of society. All of those guys are now solid middle class citizens.

None of those guys was violent, but all of them got in fights in school. All of them. None of those guys was an alcoholic or drug addict, but they all got caught with sssshtuff (controlled substances) they shouldn'ta had on 'em. None of them went to jail or juvie or to a treatment center. (Well, one did go to military school, but after that he went to Warren Wilson so go figure.) None of them only got caught once.

Funny thing, though. They didn't cause the collapse of society when they grew up. They grew out of being stupid. All of them are responsible grown men now. All of them work more than 40 hours a week, are married, have families, pay their taxes and pay their bills on time. Too bad we didn't have all the great "zero tolerance" laws back in the day. We coulda really straightened those guys out by sending them to jail for a year or so.

"They took all the trees and put them in a tree museum Then they charged the people a dollar 'n a half just to see 'em. Don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you've got till it's gone? They paved paradise and put up a parking lot."

I don't think I made it to 13 and 1 day. n/t

I know that every good and excellent thing in the world stands moment by moment on the razor-edge of danger and must be fought for. ~ Thornton Wilder

Jesus Swept ticked me off. Too short. I loved the characters and then POOF it was over.

Very excellent point

The war on drugs, in particular, has been colossal failure in terms of effectiveness - and even worse in terms of how it has devastated several generations of boys ... blacks in particular ... with its insane requirements for incarceration.

There are several recent studies

showing that brain development is crucial in the adolescent years. I have the references at my office, but it's 6 am, and for once I'm not there yet. If any one is interested I will post them this afternoon.

However, it really does just seem like common sense to look at any 13 year old you know and understand that even if they have engaged in an adult-like act, they are not capable of reasoning in the manner of an adult. This is why we do not put them out of our houses when they are 13. Even when we want to!

"Be the change you wish to see in the world." - Ghandi

I know enough

13, 14 and 15 year olds to say they can make adult mistakes without using adult reasoning or having the capacity to reason like adults. Heck...I know adults who don't reason like adults, but they are SOL. This really is a hard one and while I don't think violent offenders should be punished like adults when they are young teens, I also don't think they should get a free pass because they are young teens.

Not very specific am I. I don't have the solution, but wish I did.

Robin Hayes lied. Nobody died, but thousands of folks lost their jobs.

Vote Democratic! The ass you save may be your own.


Of course young teens should face consequences for their actions - violent, non-violent, etc. But I firmly believe they should not be the same as the consequences faced by adults. They are not capable of the same reasoning as adults (supposedly) are capable of, they should not be held accountable in the same manner.

"Be the change you wish to see in the world." - Ghandi