WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - Years ago, North Carolina lawmakers passed the Raise the Age Laws, moving the maximum age for kids in the juvenile justice system from 16 to 18 years old.
Absent from that discussion was changing the minimum age a child can enter the juvenile system.
In North Carolina, kids as young as six years old can be charged and go to juvenile court, however, there is an effort underway to “raise the floor,” moving the minimum age to ten.
Lyana Hunter works in the New Hanover County public defender’s office and has been representing juveniles in delinquency cases for 14 years now.
“I think the youngest I actually had in a trial… they were eight. Some were.. seven, eight, maybe a 9-year-old. Literally their feet… they’re just swinging from the chairs because they couldn’t reach the floor,” said Hunter.
North Carolina has the lowest minimum age in the world to enter the juvenile justice system. National organizations recommend a minimum age of 14 for kids to be thrust into the court system.
The 2020 North Carolina Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice report also suggests raising the minimum age of juvenile court jurisdiction to 12.
“A 6-year-old … we’re talking about someone that’s in kindergarten, first grade. They don’t understand the process, the don’t understand what’s going on, they probably don’t even know their address,” added Hunter. “The earlier that you introduce a child to the criminal justice system, the higher the chances are that they will remain in the criminal justice system.”
Hunter says most behavior that sends kids under 12 years old into the juvenile system is better addressed in therapy, and not putting a 7-year-old on probation.
Studies also support bringing a kid to court does more harm than good.
Chief District Court Judge J. Corpening agrees and is leading the charge to change the story. He chairs a subcommittee that’s worked since January 2020 to study the issue and submit a report to the N.C. General Assembly. According to Corpening, the committee is poised to recommend raising the minimum age to ten and adding a provision making children that are ten and 11 years old get special evaluations before proceeding with the case.
“Should children who believe in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy be making these significant life choices? I think the answer is no,” said Corpening.
These cases aren’t an everyday occurrence for our court system, but they do come up. Anything from family disputes to disruptive behavior in school can spark charges. Recently, a 6-year-old was in court in another part of the state for damage to property for picking a tulip at a bus stop.
“We were excited in 2017 about raising the age of criminal jurisdiction to 18. I’m excited about this, too. I think this is the second big piece to that, to ‘raise the floor’ to protect those youngest of our children, who can’t see over the tables in our courtrooms,” said Corpening.
The notion things could change is exciting to professionals like Hunter.
“Passing legislation like this can be so impactful for our kids,” said Hunter. “Once that change happens, I think the impact will be tremendous.”
Corpening says the committee has a meeting Thursday and another next week before the official report is sent off to lawmakers.