It has been a running joke in my family to comment the day before a sibling turns 18 that if they were planning on breaking any laws, now was the time. However jokingly this is suggested, it is nonetheless naive. The implication of being treated as a child by the justice system before turning 18 and, therefore, having a lighter punishment is misguided. Not only are adolescents in North Carolina considered adults in our justice system by age 16, but also, depending on the severity of the crime, children much younger than even 16 can be prosecuted, not by the Juvenile Court, but by the Criminal Court. This concept often calls into question our justice system’s concern for the well-being of minors.
Say, you are taken into custody here in North Carolina for underage drinking. You will immediately be assigned a court counselor who has 2 to 3 weeks to determine whether your case should be dropped or go to Juvenile or Criminal Court. If you are over 15 and you are not a first-time offender, there is a good chance you will be tried as an adult in the Criminal Court. If your crime is a more severe felony like murder, rape, or burglary, no matter how old you are or if it is a first offense, you can, and probably will, be sent to Criminal Court.
The main difference between the two is illustrated by the purposes they claim to serve. Juvenile Court is preferable for teens because its purpose is to rehabilitate, whereas Criminal Court serves to punish. There is and has been a lot of controversy about whether or not those under the age of 18 should ever be tried as adults. Commentators that condemn youths being tried as adults point out higher recidivism in these youths and note that these children will be put in temporary or permanent adult facilities that are unsuitable or possibly dangerous for children. Though this evidence is persuasive, we must consider cases such as that of North Carolina’s Raistlin Martin, age 17, who admitted in February to killing his sleeping grandfather with a hatchet. His actions were horrific and premeditated; this is an instance where grave measures are expected to be taken to ensure that a criminal comes to justice. On the one hand, there are those who say most adolescent minds are not developed enough to fully differentiate between right and wrong, and on the other, those who believe the age of the perpetrator is inconsequential when it comes to violent crimes. The issue of trying minors as adults is one of many public matters that cannot be solved with a blanket solution. Due to the broken society we live in, misconduct is not uncommon, and each case is unique.
However one views the justice system, on the whole, it is evident that our government is highly interested in protecting its youths. The Juvenile Court system itself was implemented due to the knowledge that the majority of minors are highly impressionable and still developing mentally. Additionally, the determination to foster community-conscious members of society has spurred the implementation of an institution called Teen Court. Minors who, in Juvenile Court, have pleaded guilty to minor, first-time offenses can choose to be sentenced by a jury of their peers (justice for teens by teens). Teen volunteers take on the role of jurors, lawyers, and judges to determine an appropriate sentence (conditions like community service, letters of apology, or instructive courses). Teen Court exemplifies the Juvenile Court’s mission: to cultivate growth over condemnation. A friend of mine who formerly acted as a Teen Court juror described to me a case he served on where a sixteen-year-old was sentenced for shooting strangers with a BB gun. A mere week after his sentencing, the sixteen-year-old was invited to join the Teen Court jury, where he served alongside my friend to continue the cycle of rehabilitation. Teen Court offers a small-scale illustration of both the educational purpose of Juvenile Court and potential severity of Criminal Court, both of which serve our citizens and our government.