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North Carolina sends 6-year-olds to court. Why some say it's time for change.

North Carolina sends 6-year-olds to court. Why some say it's time for change.

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The 6-year-old dangled his legs above the floor as he sat at the table with his defense attorney, before a North Carolina judge.

He was accused of picking a tulip from a yard at his bus stop, his attorney Julie Boyer said, and he was on trial in juvenile court for injury to real property.

The boy's attention span was too short to follow the proceedings, Boyer said, so she handed him crayons and a coloring book.

"I asked him to color a picture," she said, "so he did."

He didn't know it, but no matter what the judge decided, the experience could change the boy's life, experts say, from how he sees the court system to increasing his chance of getting into trouble again and being sent to alternative school.

Boyer and others say children that age don't have the mental capacity to understand the juvenile justice process and its consequences. They can't make informed decisions, like whether to talk to police and what to tell them, whether to go to trial and whether to admit to the accusations against them, which are called complaints.

The N.C. Juvenile Justice section, part of the state Department of Public Safety, requires parents' involvement, but the accused child is the defendant and is expected to assist in his or her defense.

"Should a child that believes in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the tooth fairy be making life-altering decisions?" asked New Hanover County Chief District Court Judge Jay Corpening.

The research says no, "even at 10, 11 and some 14-year-olds," said Corpening, who chairs a state subcommittee studying this issue at the General Assembly's request.

Advocates for raising the age for juvenile proceedings include Gov. Roy Cooper's Task Force on Racial Equity in Criminal Justice, which recommends the age be raised to 12. A subcommittee of the Juvenile Justice Advisory Committee, which was established by the state legislature, recommends 10. The National Juvenile Justice Network recommends 14.

William Lassiter, deputy secretary of North Carolina's Juvenile Justice section, said he supports raising the age to 10 and having competency evaluations for 11- and 12-year-olds.

Whether the proposal becomes law could hinge on the response from the N.C. Conference of District Attorneys and law enforcement. The N.C. Sheriff's Association and N.C. Association of Chiefs of Police haven't taken a stand, officials said.

When the system helps

Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman, who is on the conference's executive and legislative committees, believes there will be agreement to raise the age. At what age and under what circumstances are still being explored, she said.

Many kids who appear in juvenile court are accused of inappropriate sexual conduct with other children, she said. The current process can get them help to prevent more victims and troubled lives, she said.

"Frankly, a lot of times it is through that process that we identify they themselves are victims, and that enables a larger investigation," she said.

Jim Woodall, district attorney for Orange and Chatham counties, and Satana Deberry, district attorney for Durham County, support raising the age as well.

"A 6-year-old cannot comprehend what is taking place in court, but probably will never forget being labeled a delinquent," Deberry wrote in an email.

If the state makes a change, it would be the second major adjustment in recent years.

On Dec. 1, 2019, North Carolina raised the age at the other end of the juvenile spectrum to include 16-and 17-year-olds facing misdemeanors and low-level felony complaints.

In the first year, the law allowed 4,300 teens to go through the juvenile system, which shields records and offers rehabilitation and other services.

Racial disparities in the system

Another criticism of the juvenile justice system is that it disproportionately affects young children of color.

"When a cop picks up a white boy, he takes him to his parents," said Mary Stansell, juvenile chief at the Wake County Public Defender's Office. "But if he is black, he takes him to the state."

From 2015 through 2018 nearly 7,300 complaints were filed against children age 6 to 11 years old, according to numbers from the state Juvenile Justice section.

Of those complaints, 47% were against Black children, 40% were against white children and 7% against Hispanic or Latino children.

In general, 22% of the state's population is Black, 70% is white and 10% is Hispanic.

Roughly 82% percent of the complaints were against boys.

"It is a suspected statistic," said Yakob Lemma, 17, an Enloe High senior and co-founder of the Wake County Black Student Coalition, a student-led organization that wants to remove school resource officers from schools and make other changes. "This is just proof that we have been criminalized since we're young, since we are little kids, and we have to grow up all our lives like that, with being criminalized and being actively targeted."

Once children are in the system, the disparities continue. The process can penalize children whose parents can't take time off during a workday or who lack transportation to go to an intake meeting or drive their children to other programs, attorneys said.

About a third of the total cases in the system last year had parents that were either unwilling or unable to cooperate, Lassiter said.

Parents don't participate in the process for many reasons, said Dorothy Hairston Mitchell, supervising attorney for N.C. Central University's Juvenile Law Clinic, which helps children facing juvenile complaints and school suspensions.

Sometimes they don't get notified because they are transient or homeless, they don't have time to take off work, or they don't understand the process.

"Or the parent just doesn't agree that that should be happening to their kid, so they are just not going," Mitchell said.

How juvenile proceedings work

Cases start with a complaint being filed against a child. During an intake process, court counselors determine whether the complaint should be dismissed, go to court or deferred if the youth participates in a community program, social services and completes other promised action.

If a case goes to court and a juvenile is found guilty, dispositions can range from a referral to social services or probation to community service or commitment to a a private or state facility.

From 2015 to 2018, there were about 70 complaints against 6-year-olds each year, according to Juvenile Justice statistics. About 80% were closed or diverted to services and 20% were approved for court, the data showed.

Juvenile Justice has an internal policy not to detain children under the age of 10. Lassiter put that policy in place in 2015 after a 45-pound 7-year-old was put in detention for not coming to court.

"We would have needed a car seat for us to transport him," Lassiter said.

'It was just appalling'

The 6-year-old accused of picking the tulip ended up before a judge because his mother couldn't make the intake meeting. Once the judge realized what was happening, he dismissed the case, said Boyer.

It's a common resolution with the youngest children, attorneys said, pointing out another reason to keep children out of the system.

"He gets served with papers. His mom gets served with papers," Boyer said. "It was just appalling."

Others cases have involved young children who have broken windows at a construction site with older friends and stood on a chair and thrown a pencil at a teacher, attorneys said. Another case involved sexual exploration with another child, attorneys said.

One of Mitchell's youngest clients was a 9-year-old with autism whose response to a teacher resulted in him being found guilty of assault on a government official.

"He doesn't understand things in general, and he definitely did not understand everything that was going on with him in the courtroom," she said.

Lowest age in the world

State Rep. Marcia Morey, a Durham Democrat on the Task Force for Racial Equity for Criminal Justice, said she planned to file a bill to raise the age to 10.

"I think child development and psychologists would have a different opinions, but if we could just start there that would be a great improvement to our current situation," said Morey, a former judge who said she would support an even higher age.

North Carolina was one of the last states to pull 16 and 17-year-olds from adult court, Corpening said, and it's behind again, with the lowest juvenile jurisdiction in the world. Corpening chairs the Juvenile Jurisdiction Advisory subcommittee that recommends moving the age to 10.

North Carolina has the youngest specified age of 6, followed by three states with 7. About 30 states don't specify an age.

About 12 states set 10 as the minimum age. Massachusetts and California set it at 12.

History of the law

In 1979, state legislators set the minimum age for juvenile proceedings at 6 years old, but meeting minutes don't spell out why, Lassiter said.

Lassiter said officials are exploring a change in which youth would still come to juvenile court counselors for consultations but the court process and punitive parts of the system would be off the table.

"What we are also looking at in the statute is how do we make sure kids are getting the referrals they need for exceptional children services or behavior disability services in schools," he said.

Officials are also willing to consider exceptions for serious or violent offenses, which are rare, Lassiter said.

To address parents not participating in the process or services, Lassiter said, state officials are exploring adding a requirement that Department of Social Services get involved, possibly through a team of school, mental health and juvenile justice officials who would assemble a plan for the family that would be presented to a court.

Long and short-term effects

Court involvement can leave lasting impressions on children in a critical stage of their development, said Cindy Cottle, a Raleigh-based forensic psychologist.

Kids that age are short-term thinkers who focus on doing and saying whatever they need to for an unpleasant process to end, she said.

Research shows early court involvement increases children's likelihood of dropping out of school, of getting into trouble again, and having long-term court involvement, said Peggy Nicholson, supervising attorney for the Duke University's Children's Law Clinic.

"So it is having the opposite effect of making them more likely to recidivate and decreasing public safety," Nicholson said.

When a complaint is dismissed, it remains on the child's record, which while private from the general public would be considered by court officials after another complaint. Students found guilty of serious crimes may be barred from sports and transferred to alternative schools. Serious convictions could also jeopardize their family's housing and may have to be noted on college and other applications.

Schools and complaints

Raising the age for juvenile proceedings would shift the emphasis to social services and mental health services and require schools to find alternatives to how they handle young children, Lassiter and others said.

Most of the complaints for kids under 12 come from schools, according to Juvenile Justice data.

From 2015 to 2018, 87% of the complaints against 6-year-olds and 58% of the complaints against 10-year-olds were from schools.

Wake County School Board Chair Keith Sutton said raising the age of juvenile jurisdiction is the best way to move forward.

"I think we need to improve the ways in which we provide support to students, especially from a social-emotional perspective," he wrote.

Mitchell, the NCCU youth clinic supervisor, suggests more school-based mediation, restorative justice and mental health services. Considering disparities in suspensions and other actions, there needs to be mandatory training and oversight.

"I just don't think there is widespread trust," she said.

Lemma, who co-founded the student coalition, said there is a history of a disconnect between the school officials and students of color who are affected by the the policies.

"Will the Board of Education listen?" he said. "Will they value our students' voices?"

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