North Carolina can prosecute 6 year olds (but they're trying to stop)

In North Carolina, children as young as 6 years old can be prosecuted in juvenile court, the lowest age set by law in the United States, but a bipartisan effort is working to raise the minimum age of delinquency to a whopping 10 years old. The minimum age was originally set in 1979, when the state viewed the juvenile justice system as a sort of assistance program for kids and their parents.

Between 2016 to 2019, state residents filed over 2100 complaints against 1150 children under 10 years old. According to the North Carolina Department of Public Safety, a disproportionate amount of black children were accused of wrongdoing, and while the state says no children under 10 were actually put behind bars, racial justice groups and local lawmakers say that simply having to appear in court can cause long lasting harm to the children.

"The likelihood of them lacking legal capacity is so high and the potential for real identity development damage is also really high," said Barbara Fedders, director of the Youth Justice Clinic at the University of North Carolina School of Law. "It just feels like we are doing them all a disservice if we can't find a better way to deal with these issues than prosecution."

via AP

Fedders' clinic assisted in a case in 2014 involving a 6 year old black child in Raleigh who had thrown a rock at a vacant apartment window. The boy confessed his actions to the police officer who arrived at the scene, and was subsequently brought into court twice, forcing him to miss school. The clinic eventually had the case dismissed, saying that a child under 7 years old was incapable of forming criminal intention.

Former judge and current Democratic State Representative Marcia Morey recalls seeing children in her courtroom, sitting at oversized desks, swinging their feet from their adult-sized chairs, crying as they drew in coloring books. One case in particular involved a trio of 7, 8, and 11 year old children who were brought in for throwing dice against a building in a housing complex in 2010.

"I was just dumbstruck. They brought these kids into court for throwing dice," Morey said.

via AP

Most of the complaints came from school settings, and while more than 43% were dismissed outright, 1/10 of referrals were ultimately resolved in court due to children or parents not meeting obligations such as counseling.

The bill's author, Republican Senator Danny Britt, says the bill will not come to fruition by the end of the year. Dawn Blagrove, executive director of Emancipate NC, supports Britt's bill, but warns that it won't have the impact on systematic racism that lawmakers are hoping for.

"What we are seeing is Republicans finding the easiest, the most innocuous, the least impactful ways to create change to a system that needs massive overhaul without actually disrupting the system," Blagrove said.

via AP