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Sunday, December 19, 2010

At What Age Are You An Adult?

The Charlotte Observer ran an editorial a few weeks ago about North Carolina being in the minority of states that treat 16 and 17 year old individuals as adults. Most states treat individuals as adults once they turn 19. Mandy Ableidinger wrote a commendable editorial about this important issue and highlights pending legislation to change this policy. I have been meaning to blog about this topic and with several juvenile cases on my caseload recently, it has seemed even more relevant.

Some criminal defense attorneys do not handle juvenile cases. While juvenile cases can be very time consuming, it also has different procedures, a different legal language and involves many agencies. Ideally, the criminal defense lawyer, the district attorney, the court counselor, the police department, the judge and any other rehabilitative agencies involved work together in a collaborative fashion to reform the juvenile, prepare them for a successful life, while also protecting the public from any additional harm. It can be very time consuming but also very rewarding. I enjoy these cases. A successful case results in the judge terminating probation for successful completion. It is comforting to see your client succeed in school and know when they graduate from high school, they will do so without an adult criminal record. Conversely, a 16 year old can be convicted in adult court and be forced to carry that conviction throughout life. The 16 year old will be forced to explain that conviction every time he/she applies for a school or a job.

I recently handled a serious case involving a 16 year old individual in custody at the Mecklenburg County jail. The case was ultimately dismissed by the District Attorney, but visiting a 16 year old at the Mecklenburg Jail was disturbing. I was able obtain an educational assessment and ensure the individual was attending high school classes while in custody. However, additional services  are very limited. The case was filed 11 days after the individual turned 16. This person was a child, but was being treated as an adult. Fortunately, the case was dismissed; a clean record still exists for the 16 year old. .

North Carolina is only one of two states that treat 16 and 17 year olds as adults. Research shows that youths who serve adult time are twice as likely to be convicted of crimes as youth who are punished and rehabilitated in the juvenile system. For those who practice in the criminal courts on a regular basis, this statistic is not surprising. Adult court is based on punishment, not rehabilitation. Action for Children has an informative website that has some important statistics everyone should read. I think you will be surprised by the statistics. Meanwhile, let's hope North Carolina changes this very old law.

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