Should 16-year-olds automatically be put into the adult justice system? That’s the issue being debated in our state. I’m starting to be convinced that judges should be given discretion. On a recent edition of Carolina Journal Radio, Mitch Kokai discussed the issue with Marc Levin, director of the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, and Right on Crime, a national organization devoted to criminal justice policy research and analysis.

Kokai: Some people are going to hear our conversation, and their immediate thought is going to be, “OK, 16-year-olds, they go to adult court now. The talk is to put them in the juvenile justice system. This is just soft on crime. This is letting these teenagers get away with something.” What’s the response when you hear people talking like that?

Levin: Clearly, the juvenile justice system isn’t a walk in the park. I mean, you get punished. Of course, there [are] juvenile facilities. You could be put behind bars. But also, the juvenile system focuses on restitution for victims — which I think is critically important from a limited-government, free-market perspective — and also on rehabilitating these youths and working with the education [system], the child welfare system, the mental health system. I think that from a standpoint of efficiency, you really want to leverage what we’re already spending in those systems that touch these same youngsters. 

And so 16-year-olds, for example, fall under the compulsory attendance law in North Carolina. They’re supposed to be in school. And the juvenile justice system makes sure they are in school and doesn’t charge them the same high fees — which, I think it’s appropriate to charge adult probationers fees to pay for the cost of supervision; they’re supposed to be out working, making a living, they should be able to pay the fees — but if you’re in school, I think that’s a different matter. 

And we want these kids not to be dropouts. We want them to get a high school diploma. We want them to stop offending, and the juvenile justice system is the right place to do that, particularly when we’re talking about the current proposal on the table, which is only misdemeanors. We’re talking about a 16-year-old who had a small amount of marijuana or who stole something from a store. And do we want to give them a permanent adult criminal record that’s going to make it hard for the rest of their life to get a job, to get housing — really to be a government barrier to them being successful in the private sector?