Status Offenders: Guilty of Youthful Offenses
There are two types of juveniles represented within North Carolina’s juvenile justice system: status offenders, otherwise known as simply “undisciplined” juveniles and delinquent juveniles. Delinquent juveniles typically draw the attention of the public eye, as they are the minors that commit “adult” level offenses, such as robbery, vehicle theft, or assault with a deadly weapon. Status offenders, however, commit offenses that are considered violations of the law simply because of the status offender’s youth. Hence the title “undisciplined,” these offenses can include running away from home, underage drinking, truancy, and overall “ungovernability.”
Why is there a separation in the types of youthful violators of the law?
Before World War II, there were only delinquent juveniles. Author Soma Kedia writes that, post-WWII, New York created the separate category of “status offenders” to distinguish between juveniles who committed minor-specific offenses from the juveniles that had committed criminal adult acts.  For example, a child that skipped school too many times would be considered to have committed a “low offense status,” whereas a child that stole a car to go on a joyride was considered to have committed a criminal act. Congress mirrored New York’s actions in 1974 with the enactment of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Act, which not only required the separation of status offenders from the delinquent juveniles, but also the removal of all status offenders from correctional facilities. Following this enactment, Kedia remarks that the American Bar Association (ABA) advocated for the complete removal of status offenders from the court system. The ABA argued that placing status offenders within the court system was unjust given that an adult would not be charged with a criminal offense for engaging in the same behavior as the status offender. The ABA further argued that placing status offense children in the court system had the potential to encourage criminal behavior. Since status offenders were officially not allowed to be placed in correctional facilities anymore, the ABA advocated for states to research potentially beneficial rehabilitative services and adopt them instead. Although the ABA was unsuccessful in their efforts to remove status offenders from the court system entirely, there is a process in place in North Carolina that estops all status offenses from going before the juvenile court unless they are found to be “serious” offenses. As a reminder, most status offenders are seen to be “undisciplined” in that they have not committed any criminal misbehavior. Thus, it would follow that most status offenses should not fall anywhere near being a “serious” offense. As seen in the North Carolina juvenile code below, the exact process to be followed is left to the discretion of the chief court counselors in each district.
The Most Recent Enactments to the Juvenile Code
The North Carolina juvenile code provides the following regarding intake services for status offenders:
Delinquency, Undisciplined, and Vulnerable Complaints
- 7B–1700. Intake services
“The chief court counselor . . . shall establish intake services . . . for all delinquency and undisciplined cases and all complaints against vulnerable juveniles.
The purpose of intake services shall be to determine from available evidence whether there are reasonable grounds to believe the facts alleged are true, to determine whether the facts alleged constitute a delinquent or undisciplined offense . . . to determine whether the facts alleged are sufficiently serious to warrant court action, and to obtain assistance from community resources when court referral is not necessary or allowed. (Act of Aug. 30, 2021, N.C. Laws 123).
Too Much Discretion Muddles the Lines of Separation
Any person can file a complaint against a juvenile. The role of the intake counselor is to meet with the juvenile and their parents, obtain information about, and decide whether to dismiss or file the complaint. Intake counselors are given full discretion to use the facts within the complaint when deciding what constitutes a “serious” offense in status offender cases. If the intake counselor decides the facts warrant a “serious” offense, the juvenile is sent before a judge in juvenile court. If an intake counselor decides an offense is not serious enough to warrant court action, the counselor then seeks assistance from community resources, such as drug rehabilitation facilities.
While the process seems straightforward, the amount of discretion given to intake counselors in these situations can lead to unintentional consequences, such as time taken away from delinquent juveniles who need zealous advocacy to keep them from behind bars. As an extern for a public defender’s office in North Carolina, I observed that any given morning in juvenile court could amount to more than a few undisciplined cases, but never more than a couple of delinquent cases. Often, work for a delinquent case would be put on hold while the public defender reviewed status offense case files and represented undisciplined juveniles in front of the judge. Time is being taken away from delinquent juveniles who need the public defender to zealously advocate for crimes subjecting them to time spent in juvenile detention centers or, worst-case scenario, a transfer to adult court. This time is currently being strained by status offense cases that have no purpose in court.
“No Purpose in Court” is More than a Strong Opinion
Another observation that I made during my externship in the public defender’s office was that at times a status offender, or undisciplined juvenile, would stand before a judge as the public defender explained why the juvenile had run away or skipped school. The judge would speak with the juvenile and recommend solutions to the parent, while advising the juvenile that these recommendations should be followed.
However, upon leaving the courtroom, the public defender would explain to the child and the parent that the status offender was under no legal obligation to follow the recommendations of the judge. The judge’s recommendations were merely suggestions for improvement and the child was not subject to any sort of probation or legal consequence for not following the suggestions. While this would often upset the parents of the juvenile, the public defender would remind them they were there to represent the juvenile and were giving honest legal advice.
If status offenders face no legal consequence for their actions, the question inevitably becomes why are status offenders brought to court in the first place? In rare and serious cases, a judge is able to order that a juvenile be relocated to Child Protective Services or a temporary home if the actions of the juvenile are shown to be a result of neglect or abuse by a parent or guardian.
In my three months with the public defender’s office, which involved weekly experiences with dozens of status offense cases, I never once saw a status offense case reach the point of requiring the judge to relocate the juvenile. There are no reported statistics on how many relocations result from a delinquency or status offense hearing. The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) maintains data on how many children are placed into foster care in all 100 counties of North Carolina but does not maintain data on how many of those are a result of a court order. Furthermore, the very court case management system of North Carolina, JWise, fails to track the number of children relocated, despite being by court order. The first step to further legislation begins with proper records that can assist in highlighting where change is needed.
Further Legislative Enactment is Needed.
Historically, the status offense designation was created to separate juveniles that committed serious crimes from those that did not. Today, that separation has become muddled as delinquent juveniles and status offenders alike are required to stand before a judge as if they both committed a crime. Sending the large numbers of status offenders to juvenile court creates time tension for already overworked public defenders that must also represent the juveniles who have committed a punishable crime. It also creates tension between children and parents as children are told they are under no legal obligation to change their behavior, while standing in front of their parents. In my experience, intake counselors have the option to obtain community assistance from the very moment of intake, however, that option is not utilized as often as the court appearance. Further legislation, as simple as adding procedural language, is needed to correct this flaw in the juvenile justice system, as status offenders and their parents deserve a solution beyond an unnecessary trip to court.
 See Sonia Kedia, Creating an Adolescent Criminal Class: Juvenile Court Jurisdiction over Status Offenders (2015)