This letter is in response to the article entitled, “No need to expand N.C.’s Juvenile Courts” that appeared in the Macon County News Volume 30 Number 14 on Thursday, August 30, 2012. I sincerely hope that you will publish this in The Macon County News and thereby allow the perspective of a parent to be considered.
Senator Thom Goolsby offered his perspective of what he thinks is a better solution than the legislation proposed in Senate Bill 434. I would like to offer my opinion as a parent on this issue.
One thing I agree with Mr. Goolsby on is that, “to parents this legislation should be a very big deal,” after all it is our children, and their families who are impacted. I believe that the juvenile justice system was set up to meet the needs of both the juvenile and the parent. Let’s face it until you are 18 years of age you are under a legal disability. Can those under 18 vote, or enter into a contract? Do they have a say in the authority of the government placed over them? No, but the parents do. The parents of children who are under 18 years of age have a parental duty to protect their children, even from unwarranted jurisdiction of the state. I firmly believe that the prosecution of children under the age of 18 in the adult court system is an infringement upon the rights of both the child and his or her parents. This belief is justified considering the current practices of “adult criminal” system. Is a parent of a child prosecuted in the “adult system” afforded the right of due process as required by the Fourteenth Amendment? No. However, the juvenile court system has that protection in place. That protection is facilitated by the appointment of a Guardian Ad Litem (GAL). Consider this, in all other matters at law the parent is a necessary party, for example if your child suffered a wrong and wanted to file civil suit, they could not, on account of age, the parent and legal guardian would be required to initiate the action. Let’s face it, the “adult criminal system” is not civil and does not protect or even consider the impact of their decision on the nuclear family unit, considered the most fundamental building block of society.
The social status and liberty of a child is not fully recognized until the age of 18. Until 18 the parent or legal guardian is, or can be, held liable for the wrongdoing of a child. Does not the prosecution of one under 18 result in placing the parent in jeopardy of prosecution under the parental-responsibility statutes? Yet, as parents, our hands are seemingly tied when it comes to protecting our children when they are accused of a crime, and placed in the “adult system”.
I, as a parent have always had a hope for a good future for my children, and I have a vested interest in what their future will be. For my son who “plea-bargained” against my will, the collateral consequences of his “adult conviction” will follow him for the remainder of his life. These collateral consequences will always limit what his chosen vocation will be as well as his ability to obtain a higher education. I think that there is a very good reason that the child advocate groups are pushing for raising the age of majority in North Carolina. The juvenile justice system is in place primarily to take into consideration the particular disabilities of children and to focus on rehabilitation, not punishment. What effect will the lifelong punishment have on those convicted? Will they lose hope? I for one will never lose hope that my son can live and be an upstanding member of the community one day. Judgment and punishment without the corresponding forgiveness and rehabilitation is not just.
Another point I agree with Mr. Goolsby on is that “the right to trial by jury” is important. Can a true jury of peers be pooled for those under 18? Considering, a person is required to be 18 to serve on a jury in North Carolina, I think not. Furthermore, with the adult criminal justice system being what it currently is, how many trials by jury really happen? Plea-bargaining is the prevalent form of dispensation of justice and in that context the bargainer is required to relinquish the right to trial by jury. Albert W. Alschuler, in the Columbia Law Review, Volume 79, correctly stated, “One statistic dominates any realistic discussion of criminal justice in America today: roughly 90 percent of the criminal defendants convicted in state and criminal courts plead guilty rather than exercise their right to stand trial before a court or jury.” With that statistic in mind, I must inquire to Mr. Goolsby, “What is the likelihood that the right to trial by jury would even come into play?”
I firmly disagree with Mr. Goolsby that reform of the existing sentencing laws would be a better solution. Reform of sentencing laws would not relieve the harm done to the families of children convicted, nor would it alleviate the lifelong disabilities brought about by the collateral consequences of conviction. Children have their entire lives ahead of them – that fact alone justifies the need for rehabilitation, which is completely left out in Mr. Goolsby’s proposed solution.
Anna M. Ramos — Highlands, N.C.