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Raise the Age Campaign: fighting for youth in the justice system

Chase Cerbin, Staff Writer

North Carolina is the only state in the United States that automatically charges, tries, sentences, probates and incarcerates 16- and 17-year-olds in the adult criminal system with no exceptions.

A campaign called Raise the Age is trying to change this policy. It is being organized by Action for Children North Carolina, a non-profit advocacy organization. Students from Warren Wilson’s Social Welfare Policy and Services class is working on the campaign.

“We are trying to find youth who are interested in this issue,” said senior Elizabeth Brenum, who is in the Social Welfare class. “Ultimately, we would like to find people who could testify before the North Carolina task force [comprised of state legislators focusing on the issue] when they are in the area and have them share why this issue is important to them.  Obviously, we know not everyone can make time to [testify], or they are not that invested in the issue, so we are finding ways that everyone can fit in and help.”

The class recently divided into three groups, each with different tasks. The first group will work primarily on the college campus.

“Our [the first group’s] goal is to get students involved on campus,” said Brenum. “We plan on doing an information session as well as tabling where students will be able to sign the official Raise the Age petition. We also plan on having a bake sale to raise money for our costs. These include mailing out petitions and getting transportation for people who want to testify. All the leftover money will get directly to the Raise the Age campaign.”

The second group will do work off-campus, ideally getting the outside community aware of and involved with the Raise the Age campaign. The third group will cover public relations, creating a Facebook page and making posters and fliers.
Brenum mentioned that by participating in the Raise the Age campaign, she has learned more about the justice system and why the policy should be changed.

“Recent scientific studies have shown that people under 25 cannot comprehend the consequences of their actions or make sound judgements compared to adults,” said Brenum. “I do not think 16- and 17-year-olds should automatically be tried in the adult system since they do not understand the implications of their actions.”
Another argument against sentencing minors as adults in the criminal justice system is that rehabilitation is often not included.
A recent Frontline study outlined the functions of rehabilitation within different criminal courts. “Rehabilitation is not considered a primary goal in the criminal justice system, which operates under the assumption that criminal sanctions should be proportional to the offense. Deterrence is seen as a successful outcome of punishment. The underlying rationales of the juvenile court system are that youth are developmentally different from adults and that their behavior is malleable. Rehabilitation and treatment, in addition to community protection, are considered to be primary and viable goals.”

Changing the system would also lower state taxes.

A nation-wide 2007 poll by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency found that “more than 80% of respondents think that spending on rehabilitative services and treatment for youth will save tax dollars in the long run.”

The same poll also found that, “by more than a 15 to 1 margin (92% to 6%), the U.S. voting public believes that decisions to transfer youth to the adult court should be made on a case-by-case basis and not be governed by a blanket policy.”

While voters may agree with the message of the campaign, it is not an easy policy to change. Ali Climo, who teaches the Social Welfare and Policy class, noted that it would be “very expensive to fix the policy.” This is the main reason she believes it has not been changed.


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