Kids grow up fast in North Carolina. At least, that's been the message from the state's judicial statutes.
Until the passage of the "raise the age" law in 2017, North Carolina was the last state in the nation to automatically charge teens ages 16 and 17 as adults for all crimes
Now an eye-opening report by The News & Observer's Virginia Bridges calls attention to a North Carolina law that allows children as young as 6 to be hauled into juvenile court. The law reaches earlier into childhood than any in the nation. Bridges focused on a 6-year-old in court on the charge of injury to property. His offense? He picked a tulip from a yard near his bus stop.
Automatically sending 16- and 17-year-olds into adult court, an experience likely to permanently affect a young life, was cruel. Assuming 6-year-olds can go to court and participate in their own defense is absurd.
Jay Corpening, a New Hanover County chief district court judge, emphasized that absurdity in a question he posed to Bridges: "Should a child that believes in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy be making life-altering decisions?"
Corpening, who chairs a subcommittee that will advise the legislature on the minimum age issue, recommends moving it to 10. At that age, children may be beyond believing in flying reindeer, but even then their idea of right and wrong is not well formed. North Carolina should go higher. The state's Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice recently recommended raising the minimum age to 12. We agree.
State Rep. Marcia Morey, a Durham Democrat and former judge who served on the task force, filed a bill on Wednesday that would raise the minimum age to 10, though she would favor a higher age.
The National Juvenile Justice Network says the minimum age should be 14, a standard set forth by the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child and what the group says is the most common minimum age of criminal responsibility internationally.
While North Carolina has the lowest minimum age for juvenile proceedings, other states are also at fault. Most states have no minimum age for juvenile jurisdiction and about a dozen states set the age at 10.
As a result, the criminalization of children's behavior is surprisingly widespread. In 2019, 2,550 children younger than 10 years old were arrested, along with 36,691 youth aged 10-12 years old, according to the National Juvenile Justice Network.
In North Carolina the numbers are equally daunting. Bridges reported that from 2015 through 2018 nearly 7,300 complaints were filed against children ages 6 to 11 years old.
Often the charges against children are combined with efforts to get at the underlying problems that are causing the wrongful actions. Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman notes that this is especially true in cases where children are accused of inappropriate sexual behavior. "Frankly, a lot of times it is through that process that we identify they themselves are victims, and that enables a larger investigation," she said.
Those results are welcome, but a criminal system should not be the mechanism for dealing with children so young. And the system is often more harsh than helpful.
That's particularly true of how the system treats young Black boys. Black residents are 22 percent of North Carolina's population, but nearly half of the juvenile complaints filed against children ages 6 to 11 from 2015 and 2018 were against Black children, overwhelmingly boys.
Children can act badly, some of them because of autism, emotional issues or abuse at home. But sending them into a criminal system doesn't help them or society.
Children that break rules or laws are often acting out of ignorance, frustration, sadness or a developmental disability. Their actions should be regarded as calls for help, not for legal punishment. In North Carolina, kids 12 and under should be seen as all our children and treated as such. Once more, raise the age and protect the child.