(This blog is from the Summer of 2016.)
This week began with bad news.
Let me rewind a bit -for the last couple of weeks, I’ve been doing research on the effects of trying and incarcerating youth as adults, in order to help Council better advocate for Raise the Age, an initiative to raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction from 15 to 17 in North Carolina. After so many hours poring over recidivism studies, learning about the neurological differences between teenagers and adults, and observing court hearing where adolescents are tried for everything from skipping class to gun violence, the issue has gotten closer and closer to my heart. The idea that a 16-year-old, someone who can’t vote, can’t enlist in the army, can’t even drive a car in some states, can be sent to an adult prison breaks my heart.
Juveniles in adult facilities -at the peak of their impressionability- are socialized with hardened criminals, become more likely to reoffend when they’re released, don’t get the education they need to continue developing socially and academically, and worst of all, are the demographic most likely to be victims of inmate-on-inmate physical and sexual violence. And these are just a few of the horrors that result when the law treats still-developing teenagers as fully-developed adults.
It seems like Raise the Age would be a common-sense, bipartisan bill, right? Right. North Carolina House Bill 399, the piece of legislation that would bump juvenile jurisdiction to 17, was actually co-sponsored by dozens of state legislators, Republicans and Democrats alike. What’s more, North Carolina is one of only TWO STATES in the country -the other being New York- to prosecute 16-year-olds as adults. It would seem very unlikely that we know something here that the other 48 states aren’t privy to.
So why did my week begin with bad news? Because, as I pulled up North Carolina’s legislative calendar on Monday morning to check for updates on HB 399, I realized that the NCGA had stopped scheduling meetings. This means that the legislative session is about to draw to a close -and that, once again, this year’s Raise the Age bill is about to die in committee, like several before it.
I stared at my computer screen in a mixture of horror and disbelief. How could this be happening? I wondered. HB 399 was the perfect bill -simple, bipartisan, and indisputably good for North Carolina’s children. My boss picked that moment to stop by my desk, and my face must have said it all, because as soon as she peered at the webpage I’d pulled up, she merely nodded in understanding.
“It sucks, but I’m not surprised,” she mused. “This is a great taste of political gridlock for you -even when both sides want the same thing, if no one will compromise, we’re never going to get this bill through.”
“But everything about it made political sense -it should have passed!” I couldn’t let go of my indignance nor my incredulousness.
My boss regarded me with a sigh. “I’ll be honest with you -you’re not the first DukeEngage intern that’s worked on Raise the Age, and you won’t be the last.”