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How efforts at juvenile justice reform left many kids behind

On Behalf of | Jul 27, 2022 | criminal law

Juvenile justice is a complex and frequently-changing area of law. Lawmakers want to appear tough on crime to appeal to the voting public, but they also recognize that being too harsh on youthful offenders can hurt those who make minor mistakes early in life.

Lawmakers, law enforcement officers and the courts need to balance the need for accountability with the possibility of helping juvenile offenders rehabilitate and become productive members of society. Unfortunately, North Carolina has historically been relatively harsh on youthful offenders.

Even the attempt to prevent the adult prosecution of juveniles accused of crimes left the very people used to advocate for those changes in the same disadvantaged circumstances.

Who are the doughnut hole kids?

In 2017, state lawmakers in North Carolina passed the Juvenile Justice Reinvestment Act. People sometimes refer to this law as the “Raise the Age” Act. The goal of this legislation was simple. Lawmakers and activists cooperated to end the practice of sentencing 16- and 17-year-old offenders like they were adults.

Those lobbying to change the law referenced real cases involving actual teenagers. Tragically, even after lawmakers did raise the age, those young adults who were previously facing adult sentences became the doughnut hole kids. The legislation took more than a year to enact, so the children fell into the gap that occurred between when lawmakers passed the bill and when it started to influence sentencing rules in criminal court.

Those headed to court after the law went into effect didn’t have to worry about sentencing as an adult, but many teenagers who were in custody when the law passed still faced penalties reserved for adults.

What does this mean for juvenile defendants?

It is crucial for those supporting juvenile defendants to know that the courts can still sometimes prosecute teenage offenders as adults when they have probable cause to do so. Despite hopes that more juvenile offenders would receive rehabilitative services, there have been many young adults who have not benefited from those Services since lawmakers passed the Raise the Age Act in 2017.

Understanding the unique North Carolina approach to juvenile criminal charges can help those trying to mount a defense to minimize the consequences of those youthful charges.