As adults, most of us can look back on our own teenage years with a smile, knowing that we recovered from our mistakes. Thankfully, we were not fated forever to be the person we were on our worst day.
Our criminal and juvenile justice systems do not always help with that recovery. That’s partly because teenagers have trouble grasping the possibilities the future holds. But it’s also because the adults in their lives need to provide the support and guidance that teenagers need to thrive.
Last year, South Carolina sensibly changed its law to raise the age of juvenile court jurisdiction, thereby recognizing the many ways that our young people are more than the worst mistake they ever made. There but for the grace of God go I.
If the legislature appropriately funds the new “Raise the Age law,” South Carolina will join the rest of the country in treating most 17-year-olds as youths in our family courts. This is hardly cutting-edge legislation — it’s an idea now shared with 44 other states. North Carolina and Louisiana’s governors signed Raise the Age legislation in the exact same month as ours did.
Let’s face it: There’s a reason we don’t allow 17-year-olds to buy cigarettes, much less to own a gun. The teenage years are full of promise, but we usually know that 17-year- olds shouldn’t be treated as if they were adults. These are years endowed with opportunity and hope. They are not necessarily years of wisdom. Scientific research confirms what we can all see: Teenagers are not simply little adults. Teenagers are impulsive and occasionally reckless. They’re more susceptible to peer pressure. Adolescence is a phase of one’s life that requires a different set of interventions.
This year, the police will arrest an estimated five-thousand 17-year-olds in South Carolina — and that’s about half as many arrests as just 10 years ago. It doesn’t make South Carolina special — the numbers are similar elsewhere. There’s a similar story for younger teenagers, too. We’re making real progress in building the next generation.
These declines in juvenile offending ought to mean that we can add 17-year-olds into the juvenile system (as most states already do) with the resources already in the budget. Fewer arrests means fewer court cases, fewer kids in detention and sending fewer kids to be locked up in the Broad River Road Complex in the state capital. Keeping our youth close to home is the better solution.
Some of those arrested teenagers probably will be members of my church. They may be your neighbors or your children, too. Overwhelmingly, they will be charged with lower level offenses. Besides, the new state law doesn’t change how serious offenses by 17-year- olds are handled. Instead of sending our youths to serve time behind bars, let’s try to put their energy to good use.
Let us use a restorative justice framework by requiring that our youths restore and make whole individuals that they have harmed, through hard work that benefits both the individual they have harmed and their communities. Teenagers require our guidance. And, as we move forward, let’s also take a good, hard and honest look at the racial disparities that we all know plague the justice system at all levels. We honor the law best when we ensure it is applied with justice.
The AME Church is as old as the U.S. Constitution. Throughout its history, the church has been called to look beyond its walls and into our communities. For this reason, I am a strong supporter of the effort to raise the age of criminal responsibility in South Carolina. We are our children’s keepers. They look to us for wisdom, correction and forgiveness.
This upcoming legislative session, our representatives must fulfill their promise and their place as adult role models by doing the right thing by our children and funding appropriate community-based services for 17-year-olds.
Dr. Kylon Jerome Middleton is Senior Pastor, Mount Zion A.M.E. Church in downtown Charleston.