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By Leah Asmelash
For 17-year-old M.B., stealing and fighting landed him in juvenile detention. His ticket out was the Methodist Home for Children’s transitional program in New Bern. For M.B., whose name is being withheld because of his age, life began to change.
Counselors at the Methodist Home program select troubled boys for their program based on their desire to change course. The boys stay for six months to a year, and program mentors help them stay in school, get their diploma or GED, get and keep a job, and build savings. Seventy percent of the young men’s earnings are put into a savings account. They are allowed to keep 30 percent. The residents also receive guidance on hygiene, dress, emotional control and other skills needed for success.
Now, M.B. is on track to graduate high school and wants to attend East Carolina University to study business. When he talks about his time in juvenile detention, he says the experience was rough, but it doesn’t compare to prison.
“Prison is serious, people die in there a lot,” he said. “Somebody 17, 16 (years old) should not be in a place like that.”
A second chance
Putting young people in adult prison is a concern of North Carolina Sen. Tamara Barringer (R-Cary), who argued in a press conference Tuesday in favor of the Juvenile Justice Reinvestment Act that passed the state House of Representatives earlier this month. A companion bill is being considered by the Senate and Senate budget writers put funding for the initiative into their budget starting in the 2018-19 fiscal year.
Barringer said the bill is an opportunity to help the state’s youth and that it would reduce the fiscal cost of supporting children with a criminal record. North Carolina is the last state in the country that continues to treat 16 and 17 year olds as adults.
“This bill will allow (youth) to move forward,” Sen. Barringer said.
Rev. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League of North Carolina, Inc., cited biological reasons to support raising the age at which kids are treated as adults in the justice system.
The influential evangelical minister threw his weight behind the bill, arguing that the frontal cortex of teen’s brains are not yet fully developed and young people should not be punished the same as adults. He also said the bill will allow parents to have a role in the justice and rehabilitation process. The current system denies parents the chance to intervene and help their teen, he said.
“This is pro-family,” Creech said. “Let’s safeguard our collective future by passing this legislation.”
Rev. Bruce Stanley, president and CEO of the Methodist Home for Children, said the current judicial process that lands younger teens in adult prisons exposes them to other inmates, normalizing criminal behavior to the teen. These teens then come out with more knowledge of criminal behavior and are more likely to reoffend than those who go through the juvenile justice system.
“Show us your friends and we’ll show you your future,” Stanley said. He argued that 16 and 17 year olds should be in an environment where they can be taught, trained and held accountable for their crimes.
M.B. says he knows his friends in the criminal justice system must face the consequences, but wishes they had the opportunities that he did with the transitional program.
“It’s a great program,” he said. “It’s a second chance. It gets your mind right, and it helps you become an adult, do right things in life. And I’m very thankful for being in it. Very thankful.”