DURHAM — The 6-year-old dangled his legs above the floor as he sat at the table with his defense attorney.
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, 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.
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,” explains 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, a 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.
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.
“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.
If the state makes a change, it would be the second major adjustment in recent years.
In December 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.
State Rep. Marcia Morey, a Durham Democrat, 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.