North Carolina recently passed the Juvenile Justice Reinvestment Act (JJRA), which raised the age of juvenile court jurisdiction to include youth who commit offenses at ages 16 and 17. The JJRA, commonly known in the North Carolina court system as “Raise the Age,” went into effect on December 1, 2019. Prior to enacting the JJRA, N.C. was the only state in the U.S. that automatically prosecuted juveniles as adults beginning at age 16.
The JJRA raised the maximum age for juvenile court, but it failed to address the minimum age of juvenile court jurisdiction. While North Carolina is no longer the only state to automatically prosecute juveniles as adults at 16, it is the only state to prosecute children as young as six years old in juvenile court. Advocates and judicial system decision-makers now seek that the state ‘raise the age’ at the other end of the spectrum. Currently, North Carolina law sets the minimum age for juvenile court jurisdiction at six years old.
North Carolina is the only state in the nation where the law declares a 6-year-old an eligible defendant in the juvenile justice system. North Carolina General Statute § 7B-1501(7)a, allows children as young as 6 to be hauled into juvenile court. The law reaches earlier into childhood than any in the nation. According to North Carolina’s highest-ranking law enforcement officer, Attorney General Josh Stein, “It’s morally repugnant and a damned embarrassment, and the “NCGA (North Carolina General Assembly) must raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction.”
Overview of the Juvenile Court System in North Carolina
The Juvenile court system sounds simple, but one look at the N.C. Department of Public Services’ published flowchart outlining the juvenile delinquency process will make one quickly rethink that. Thankfully, the North Carolina Judicial Branch webpage on juvenile delinquency does provide some better understanding.
Essentially juvenile court is the court system that handles complaints against children alleged to be delinquent or undisciplined. When conduct occurs that would be considered a crime if committed by an adult; the behavior is referred to as a “delinquent act.” When they engage in conduct that is inappropriate for minors but does not amount to a crime, such as running away from home or skipping school, they are considered to be “undisciplined.” Juvenile courts can adjudicate children as being delinquent or undisciplined and impose consequences that seek to rehabilitate rather than punish them. The proceedings are more informal and protective than a criminal trial. Thus, an adjudication that a juvenile is delinquent or undisciplined is not a public record.
For delinquency cases, the juvenile court has jurisdiction over children from 6 to 16 years. For undisciplined cases, the juvenile court has jurisdiction over children 6 to 18. All juveniles have the right to be represented by an attorney. However, only those alleged to be delinquent are entitled to a court-appointed attorney paid for by the State.
Suppose a complaint makes it through the elaborate flowchart of various steps in the process and goes to juvenile court, and a juvenile is found guilty. In that case, the dispositions can range from a referral to social services, counseling, probation, community service, or commitment to a private or state facility.
According to Virginia Bridgers reporting in the News & Observer, the “Juvenile Justice has an internal policy not to detain children under the age of 10.” William Lassiter, the NC Department of Public Safety’s Deputy Secretary of North Carolina’s Juvenile Justice section, tells Bridgers that the policy was put in place in 2015 after a 45-pound 7-year-old was put in detention for not coming to court. Lassiter stated that the Department of Public Safety “would have needed a car seat for us to transport him” to a facility.
Picking Tulips Leads to Complaint and Coloring Pictures at the Defense Table for one NC Six Year Old
The News & Observer’s Virginia Bridgers highlights the absurdity of North Carolina’s record low juvenile justice age in her report by focusing on a real case involving a 6-year-old in court. This 6-year-old defendant’s offense? He picked a tulip from a yard near his bus stop and was charged with injury to real property.
At the defense table, the child’s feet didn’t reach the floor. His attorney, Julie Boyer, noted that his attention span was too short to follow the court proceedings, so Boyer gave him crayons and a coloring book to draw a picture. The 6-year-old defendant’s case came before a judge in juvenile court because his mother couldn’t make the initial intake meeting. Thankfully, once the judge realized why the 6-year-old was there, the case was dismissed. However, his case calls into question why children that young come before the court system in the first place.
“Should a child that believes in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy be making life-altering decisions?”
New Hanover County Chief District Court Judge Jay Corpening posed that question when speaking to Virginia Bridgers about raising the minimum age. He stated that the research answers that question in the negative because “even at 10, 11 and some 14-year-olds,” do not have the wherewithal to comprehend the criminal justice system. Judge Corpening chairs the Minimum Age Subcommittee within the Juvenile Jurisdiction Advisory Committee that is studying the issue of raising the minimum age at the General Assembly’s request.
Children under the age of 10, 12, and 14 cannot understand what’s happening in the courtroom and the capacity to make pivotal decisions in a court case. Those decisions could very well impact them for the rest of their lives. As Bridgers points out, while the juvenile justice system “requires parents’ involvement, but the accused child is the defendant and is expected to assist in his or her defense.” Involvement in the judicial system early on can have adverse lasting effects on children.
Involvement in the court system at such a young age increases the propensity for future negative life experiences. Peggy Nicholson states in the News & Observer that the juvenile justice system is not meeting its intended purposes of preventing recidivism and increasing public safety. Nicholson is quoted saying putting young children through the system is actually “having the opposite effect of making them (children) more likely to recidivate and decreasing public safety.” Nicholson is the supervising attorney for Duke University’s Children’s Law Clinic.
Even if a complaint is dismissed, it remains on a child’s juvenile record. While the record is not available to the general public, it is a tool that juvenile court officials may consider in addressing future complaints. If found guilty, children can be removed from their current school, transferred to alternative schools, and barred from participating in sports. Additionally, involvement in the juvenile justice system can be noted on school transcripts and college applications and may jeopardize a family’s housing situation.
Disparate Racial Impact of North Carolina’s Juvenile Justice System
The Juvenile Chief at the Wake County Public Defender’s Office, Mary Stansell, is quoted in the News & Observer pointing out the racial disparity of the juvenile justice system. Stansell states that, “When a cop picks up a white boy, he takes him to his parents, but if he is Black, he takes him to the state.”
The data appears to back up Stansell’s statement. According to the North Carolina Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice:
[y]outh of color make up 46 percent of the youth population ages 6-17 in North Carolina but accounted in fiscal year 2019-2010 for: 71 percent of complaints received . . . 81 percent of detention admissions . . . 80 percent of commitments to Youth Development Centers.
In Fiscal Year 2020, children under the age of 12 comprised approximately 6 percent of all juvenile justice complaints in N.C.
Additionally, what is “specifically concerning is that Black/African-American youth make up 24% of the youth population ages 6-17 in NC, but accounted in FY 19-20 for: 55% of complaints received, 65% of detention admissions, and 65% commitments to YDC (Youth Development Centers).”
The disparity continues in analyzing juvenile complaints against young children. According to the Department of Public Safety’s report, 59% of complaints about those under the age of 10 were received for African American children. For kids under 12 years of age, 53% of complaints received were for African American children.
This racial disparity is not native only to North Carolina’s juvenile justice system. The racial disparity remains when looking at the national data. According to data collected from the Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency, “[b]lack children were significantly overrepresented as they only comprised 16.9 percent of the 12 and under population at the time while they accounted for 35.8 percent of the youth processed in juvenile court”.
Six-Year-Olds Are Not the Problem
The data supports that children under the age of twelve are not a major threat to the community (excluding tulips). The Juvenile Justice N.C. Department of Public Safety’s report points out that children under age only comprised about 1.5% of all juvenile complaints this past year. Of those few complaints, nearly 70% were of the school-based complaint variety covering school absences and similar conduct. The report points out that youth under 12 comprise only 6% of all juvenile complaints. Similarly, over 60% of those complaints were school-based. Thus, raising the minimum age will not be letting serious “offenders” go free. After all, these are elementary school-aged children.
NC Sets the Lowest Minimum Age Across the Country
North Carolina has the youngest minimum age specified age of six. Two states (Connecticut and New York) set the minimum age at seven. Washington is the only state that sets it at eight years old. Fourteen states have set the minimum at the age of 10. Nebraska is alone in setting the minimum at age 11. California, Massachusetts, and Utah have set the age at 12. The remaining 28 states don’t precisely specify a minimum age.
Advocates Across the State Recommend Raising the Age for Juvenile Court Proceedings
Governor Roy Cooper’s Task Force on Racial Equity in Criminal Justice recommends in its 2020 Report to raise the age to 12. The Minimum Age Subcommittee within the Juvenile Jurisdiction Advisory Committee recommends raising the age to 10. The National Juvenile Justice Network recommends raising the minimum age to 14. The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child recommends raising juvenile jurisdiction to 14-years-old.
Some top prosecutors across the state also support raising the minimum age. Durham County District Attorney Satana Deberry stated her support in an email to Virginia Bridgers of the News & Observer, writing that, “A 6-year-old cannot comprehend what is taking place in court, but probably will never forget being labeled a delinquent.”
As noted above, most juvenile complaints under the age of 12 stem from within the school system. Advocates from within the education system also support raising the minimum age. Wake County School Board Chair Keith Sutton notes his support for raising the age of juvenile jurisdiction as the best way forward in the News & Observer.
While advocates have different ideas about the exact age, all agree that the necessary action to raise the minimum age of juvenile court jurisdiction is a legislative change to N.C.G.S. § 7B-1501(7). The path to doing just that started on March 10th in the North Carolina General Assembly’s House of Representatives. N.C. General Assembly Representative Marcia Morey, from Durham’s District 30 filed a bill on March 10th to raise the minimum age to 10. Rep. Morey is a former Chief District Court Judge and even previously served on the Task Force on Racial Equity in Criminal Justice.
A similar bill, SB-207, has already passed on the other side of the N.C. General Assembly dome in the Senate. Similar to the bill introduced by Representative Morey, SB-207 would raise the minimum age for juvenile delinquency from 6 to 10. Notably, most of the sponsors of SB-207 are lawyers with experience on both sides of the criminal justice system.
Six-year-olds belong in a first-grade class, not a courtroom. The data and research show that raising the minimum age of juvenile jurisdiction in North Carolina should be done. Furthermore, there is a consensus amongst committees made up of experienced members of the judiciary and juvenile court systems, such as the Juvenile Jurisdiction Advisory Committee, that all recommend raising the minimum age. After all, every other state in the nation has a higher minimum age than North Carolina. Unlike most judicial issues, this appears to be an easy fix. There are already two bills in the NC General Assembly to raise the minimum age. North Carolina has proven it can raise the maximum, and now it is time to raise the minimum age.
 Except for murder, rape by force, sodomy by force, oral copulation by force, and sexual penetration by force; for
which there is no age limit. Cal. Welf. & Inst. Code § 602.
 The Utah statute has exceptions to this age limit for a variety of offenses including murder, and aggravated
kidnapping, sexual assault, arson, burglary, and robbery. HB0262, https://le.utah.gov/~2020/bills/static/HB0262.html (2020)
 Deputy Secretary for Juvenile Justice of the N.C. Department of Public Safety’s (2020) https://ncdoj.gov/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/RRI-to-Gov-task-Force-.pdf.
 M. Sickmund, A. Sladky, and W. Kang, “Easy Access to Juvenile Court Statistics: 1985-2018,” (National Center
for Juvenile Justice, 2020), EZAJCS: Demographic Characteristics (ojjdp.gov).
 North Carolina Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice: Report 2020, at 80, https://ncdoj.gov/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/TRECReportFinal_02262021.pdf;
 New Hanover County Chief District Court Judge in interview with News & Observer Virginia Bridgers
 North Carolina Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice: Report 2020, at 80, https://ncdoj.gov/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/TRECReportFinal_02262021.pdf; North Carolina General Statute § 7B-1501(7)a