North Carolina case could become an oft-cited marker in the push to “raise the floor”
Most people probably would agree that raising a child to respect others’ property is important and that a kid who doesn’t do so should be corrected.
Reasonable people might disagree over what the appropriate sanction should be, but certainly, everyone can agree that a child’s maturity level and the nature of the misbehavior should be critical factors.
So suppose, for example, a 6-year-old picks a tulip from a yard near his bus stop without permission. Regardless of any previous misbehavior, should that be the incident that lands him in front of a juvenile court judge?
New Hanover County Chief District Court Judge Jay Corpening certainly doesn’t think so, according to the McClatchy news agency’s Raleigh News and Observer. And yet that’s precisely the situation the judge faced a little boy whose legs were too short to touch the floor underneath him, coloring in a picture, in a courtroom in Wilmington, North Carolina.
Under state law in North Carolina, children as young as 6 can be sent to face the music in juvenile court. Although parents can help the child, it is the child who is charged and is expected to assist in their own defense. In this case, the little boy is charged with injury to real property.
“Should a child that believes in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the tooth fairy be making life-altering decisions?” Corpening said.
Child development experts say the experience of being in court at such a tender age could shape the child’s attitude toward the justice system and government forever. They note that the Tar Heel state’s floor of 6 years old for formally trying a child is among the lowest in the world, but that might actually be unfair to North Carolina: 28 states have no minimum age in law, which means technically a toddler could find themselves in custody.
Perhaps the stir created by the news reporting will propel change. Corpening has been out front in doing so as chairman of a subcommittee that has been studying the issue for more than a year. In a pending report to the state Legislature, the panel is expected to recommend raising the minimum age to 10, and children who are 10 or 11 years old would be entitled to a special evaluation before proceeding to trial.
Gov. Roy Cooper’s Task Force on Racial Equity in Criminal Justice backs a 12-year-old floor. A legislative advisory committee came down at 10 years old. Whether the law is changed this year may depend on the position of law enforcement, which has not taken a stand so far.
If North Carolina raises the floor for juvenile prosecution, it would be the second big change in recent years. In late, North Carolina raised the minimum age for prosecution in adult criminal court to include 16- and 17-year-olds facing misdemeanors and low-level felony complaints.
The call for minimum age legislation intensified in New York as well this winter after a 9-year-old girl was pepper sprayed by police, who had responded when her mom called 9-1-1 because her daughter was having a behavioral health episode outside the house. A recent piece of legislation would bring the minimum age there from 7 up to 12, which is currently the highest minimum in the country, used by California, Massachusetts and Utah.
The National Juvenile Justice Coalition, citing advances in brain science and other research, recommends a minimum age of 14. The organization’s executive director, K. Ricky Watson, was a public defender in North Carolina, and once defended a 6-year-old client who was accused of stealing a pair of earrings at the mall.
“Rather than traumatizing children and branding them with a stigma and a record that can harm them well into adulthood, we should instead rely on the time-honored tradition of having families lead the response when children make mistakes,” Watson said, in an op-ed published by The Imprint in February.