Elon Law alumnus is seeking to level the scales of justice for youth offenders

Ricky Watson, Jr. L’11 helped lead “raise the age” efforts to end the practice of trying 16- and 17-year-olds as adults in the North Carolina criminal justice system.

By Sarah Mulnick ’17 

Until recently, there was only one state where all 16- and 17-year-olds were required to be tried as adults in the criminal justice system: North Carolina. Fighting to end the practice altogether and erase that distinction in his home state was Ricky Watson, Jr. L’11.

The Elon Law alumnus joined the Southern Coalition for Social Justice last year as co-director of its Youth Justice Project. In his role, Watson helped lead “raise the age” efforts that included legislative advocacy and hosting educational sessions to educate the community on how North Carolina criminalized its youth and why the nearly 100-year-old law should change. 

When North Carolina lawmakers passed the state budget in June, Watson and other criminal justice reform advocates from the Outer Banks to the Blue Ridge Parkway claimed partial victory: Starting in 2019, 16- and 17-year-olds charged with misdemeanors and low-level, nonviolent felonies in North Carolina will have their cases adjudicated in the juvenile justice system. “I’m big on advocating and fighting for the ‘little guy,’ a person that maybe people have given up on,” says the Greensboro native. 

Watson has worked for the Guilford County Public Defender’s Office and the Social Security Administration. Both positions connected him to underserved populations with limited access to legal resources. Making a move to the Youth Justice Project was a natural next step in the evolution of a career focused on social justice and public service. As Watson sees it, North Carolina’s “school-to-prison pipeline” pushes teens into prison rather than remediation programs in public schools or local communities. Even those charged with crimes that may later be dismissed often encounter obstacles to finishing high school, applying to college and securing employment. 

Watson is in favor of allowing all youth to remain in the more rehabilitative juvenile system, regardless of the alleged offense, because he believes youth and the community have more to gain from the developmentally appropriate programming present in juvenile court. As such, there is more work to be done. “I was representing kids who had been funneled from the classroom into the prison system for what was often minor behavioral issues,” Watson says. “The majority of the cases that I handled were incidents of youthful behavior that most kids grow out of with time. Seeing that firsthand sparked an interest in figuring out how to help alleviate young people from all the collateral consequences of being in the system.”

Elon Law Professor Catherine Dunham saw Watson thrive as a law student as he found his passion for helping underserved populations. At the same time, Dunham says, an innate humility led Watson to forge strong relationships with those around him, something that makes him a perfect candidate to work at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice. “Ricky was a really good colleague to fellow students—he was supportive, humble in his accomplishments, always genuinely happy for the success of his peers,” Dunham says. “A student like that leaves an impression. He really has the character to work with social justice.”

Watson remains hopeful for additional changes in the way North Carolina treats juvenile offenders. Legislation to “raise the age” found strong support in Raleigh, much like it did earlier this year when New York lawmakers ended the practice there of automatically trying 16- and 17-year-olds in adult court. But there is still work ahead. “I’m proud of all of the hard work advocates across the state have done to see this finally happen,” Watson said of the recent changes. “Even though we’ve raised the age, we still have a lot of work to do improving our juvenile justice system. We’ve got to continue this work to ensure the most positive outcomes for all youth here in North Carolina. I’m looking forward to the challenge.”