Home News Center NJJN Fellow Ricky Watson Works to Mobilize Youth of Color to Raise the Age in North Carolina

NJJN Fellow Ricky Watson Works to Mobilize Youth of Color to Raise the Age in North Carolina

November 17, 2016
Benjamin Chambers


Recently, we spoke with Ricky Watson, who co-directs
the Youth Justice Project of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice (SCSJ), where he works to ensure equity, fairness, and justice for youth in education, juvenile delinquency, and criminal systems. He is a 2016-2017 fellow in NJJN's Youth Justice Leadership Institute (YJLI), a year-long program that aims to create a more effective foundation for the juvenile justice reform movement by developing a strong base of well-prepared advocates and organizers who reflect the communities most affected by juvenile justice system practices and policies.

A native of Greensboro, NC, Ricky graduated from Wake Forest University with a B.A. in political science and earned his J.D. from Elon University School of Law with a concentration in public interest. Ricky’s work as a prosecutor and as an assistant public defender led him to join SCSJ, where he is dedicated to making North Carolina a better place for youth by advocating to raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction to at least 18, increasing opportunities for court alternatives, exposing racial and socioeconomic disparities in school systems, performing community outreach and education, and providing legal advocacy on issues relevant to the needs of young people in the educational and justice systems. 


What can you tell us about your advocacy project? 

North Carolina is the last state in the nation -- with the exception of New York – where youth in trouble with the law automatically go to adult court if they’re over 16 years of age. I see a real need to do whatever I can to get the state to raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction to at least 18, and my advocacy project is related to that.

In September 2015, our state’s chief justice convened the North Carolina Committee on the Administration of Law and Justice (NCCALJ) to do a comprehensive evaluation of our judicial system and make recommendations for strengthening our courts within the existing administrative framework. In about a month, members of that group will be making a recommendation to the committee to support “raising the age” that’s about as strong a recommendation as we’ve seen in this state. It’s not perfect or representative of all that I’d like to see, but it’s a respectable compromise – a great deal of bipartisan representation and support went into it, and I can live with it for now.

But in attending these meetings, I identified a need to have more young people at the table for discussion about raising the age. It is my hope and belief that a bill will be proposed in the legislature to raise the age this year, and I want to get young men of color involved in the actual legislative process around it: that’ll be the essence of my advocacy project.

At the least, I want to hold a lobbying day at the legislature where we bring young men of color to the table to discuss why we need to raise the age. I’d like them to address both the direct and collateral consequences when we send kids to adult court at 16 and 17. I really want them to talk about how it affects their personal and professional outcomes, everything from their families to their ability to find jobs and enroll in school. 

I’ve identified young men who are willing to be involved. In fact most of them have reached out to me and are looking for ways to get involved in social justice work. Some of them are directly impacted by the justice system, and many are young men looking to volunteer for an effort they believe in. The next step is to gather them in one place so they can get educated on the issue, discuss it, and really break down the raise-the-age recommendation from the NCCALJ committee. These young men are from all over the state – not just here in Durham. I’d originally thought I’d get them together and then have them educate their peers, but I have reason to believe the legislation is moving faster than I’d thought, so I’ll have to speed things up on my end. 

I will say that from my perspective, there’s been a lack of participation by young people at the committee during discussions about raise the age  – as well as a lack of acknowledgment of the racial inequality and disproportionate minority contact that dominates the system. My organization, Youth Justice Project of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, wrote about this in public comments on the committee’s report and recommendation, emphasizing that we need to make racial equity a component in NC youth justice reform work. What I’m trying to do with the young people is in line with that, and should bring young people of color to the forefront of the discussion.

I’m aware that racial equity may not be what everyone working on this issue cares about. Maybe they care about the economics of the system, or making sure that kids in the system grow up to be taxpaying members of society, but I want to make sure when we’re talking about juvenile justice reform we honestly acknowledge that who we’re really talking about is black children.

In North Carolina, we’ve done a good job of decreasing the overall number of kids entering the system—numbers are down. But as we’ve done that, racial disproportionality has increased. Despite making up only 26 percent of the public school population, black children accounted for roughly 50 percent of all school-based delinquency complaints. Black children make up 25 percent of children in this state (age 0-17), but accounted for about 54% of all juvenile court complaints. Sixty-nine percent of all youth development center commitments are black children. More black and brown children are entering the system. This means our state has only figured out how to make the system work for some. If we can address those inequities in the youth system, and we can reduce the number of kids entering the system across the board -- especially the numbers of young people of color (who are overwhelmingly present in the system now) -- then I truly believe we’ll be in a better position to tackle racial and ethnic disparities in our adult prisons and start fixing this problem of mass incarceration. It all starts with how we treat our children. 

Learn more about our YJLI Fellows here

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