Almost 300 people in North Carolina who were prosecuted in adult court for things they did as 16- and 17-year-olds had those records erased from the books this week.
The news came as Durham County’s chief prosecutor, Satana Deberry, announced that she was taking the action voluntarily in the wake of laws that have changed in the intervening years. If those same misdemeanors or low-level felonies were allegedly committed by a 16- or 17-year-old today, the matter would be handled in the juvenile court system under the state’s Raise the Age law.
“In passing Raise the Age, our state rightfully recognized that the vast majority of young people do not belong in adult criminal court,” Durham District Attorney Deberry said. “However, these individuals did not receive the benefit of that change to the law. Instead, the errors they made as teenagers became criminal records that have followed them into adulthood. Extending this record relief is the fair and just thing to do.”
Many other states have, in recent years, also raised the age of criminal responsibility to 18 for most charges. There is growing political consensus, backed by social science, that young people are more likely to straighten out their lives by getting proper support and treatment in the juvenile system than by exposure to the punishment-oriented adult criminal system.
There has been pushback in some places, however, as some local law enforcement officials say easing up on juvenile offenders is contributing to an uptick in crime.
So far, Derberry said in Durham County, her office has wiped the charges off the books for 276 people, the greatest share of whom were charged with breaking and entering. More expungements are presumably in the pipeline.
“All of these individuals have been held accountable,” Derberry said. “Yet, they are still shouldering the weight of these charges, including many that never resulted in a conviction, up to 25 years later. Long after a sentence has ended, a criminal record can continue to be an obstacle to housing, employment, scholarships, and opportunity.”