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North Carolina is one of only two states that automatically prosecute 16- and 17-year-olds as adults in its criminal justice system. Disability Rights NC has been working with a broad, bi-partisan coalition to change this, and that work is bearing fruit. In March, a bill called the Juvenile Justice Reinvestment Act was filed at the North Carolina General Assembly that would raise the age for adult prosecutions for most offenses to 18.

You may be wondering why this is an education issue. You also may be wondering why this is a disability rights issue.

At least two-thirds of the youth in our criminal justice system have a disability, and that share may be much larger. Of the roughly two hundred children in our juvenile justice facilities, only one does NOT have a mental health diagnosis. More than 80 percent have two or more disabilities.

So, when we talk about the youth in our criminal justice system, we are really talking about kids with disabilities.

These days, almost half of the referrals into the criminal justice system for youth come from our schools. It may surprise you to know that the number one reason for those school referrals is “disruptive behavior,” which has included everything from making a scene in class to breaking a #2 pencil. These are behaviors that would have, at most, resulted in a trip to the principal’s office and maybe in-school detention 10 or 20 years ago.

Students with disabilities are twice as likely as their peers to have their school-related behaviors referred to law enforcement. In fact, arresting and prosecuting kids with disabilities for their school-related behaviors can often be an end-run around their civil rights. Federal law prohibits schools from simply expelling children when their behaviors are the result of a disability. But having those children incarcerated certainly produces a similar result.

All of this has consequences.

When our children spend less time in the classroom and more time in the courts, they are going to be worse off. It decreases their ability to get a good education and hinders their transition into adulthood. And while those transition years are critical for any child, they are particularly important for youth with disabilities. These kids already have a hard enough time getting meaningful access to housing, education, and employment as they enter adulthood. Add to this mix an adult criminal record — and the 1,000 legal “collateral consequences” that go with it — as well as possible prison time, and we just set our kids up for failure, increase their reliance on of government assistance throughout their lives, and make it more likely that they will resort to future criminal activity.

On a more nuts-and-bolts level, our state’s adult criminal justice system just isn’t set up to address the needs of young people. When 16- and 17-year olds enter the adult system, we tend to either give them a slap on the wrist and send them on their way, or we incarcerate them with adults where their lives are upended and they are more likely to commit suicide and be physically or sexually assaulted. The juvenile justice system, on the other hand, has a broad array of diversionary, rehabilitative, and educational tools — the majority of which are utilized in community settings and not in costly state-run facilities. Those tools are designed to both hold these kids (and their families) more accountable and put necessary supports in place so the kids can get back on the right path and successfully complete their educations. This doesn’t just produce better outcomes for our kids; independent studies have shown that it actually saves taxpayers money in the long run.

The time to raise the age in North Carolina is now. New York, the only other state to not yet raise the age, already has legislation moving through its state legislature to make this much-needed change. North Carolina cannot get left behind. We need to protect our students with disabilities and get smart on crime. It’s not just the right thing to do, it’s the fiscally responsible thing to do. It’s what we need to do for our students.

Matthew Herr

Matthew Herr is an attorney and works with Disability Rights North Carolina as a policy analyst.