RALEIGH – In North Carolina, a 6-year-old can no longer be seen in juvenile court for grabbing a candy bar from a checkout aisle or for running away from home. A new law that takes effect today raises the lower age of juvenile jurisdiction from 6 to 10 for most youth and will provide alternatives to taking a vulnerable juvenile to court.
Thanks to recommendations from the Juvenile Jurisdiction Advisory Committee (JJAC), the efforts of its members, the hard work of the Juvenile Justice section, bi-partisan support in the legislature, and Gov. Roy Cooper’s leadership, North Carolina will no longer have the youngest minimum age of juvenile jurisdiction due to Senate Bill 207.
An 8- or 9-year-old who either has a prior court judgement (adjudication) of delinquency or who commits a felony A through G offense will remain under juvenile jurisdiction. The age of juvenile jurisdiction for all undisciplined offenses (e.g., truancy, runaways and other status offenses) is now 10.
“These changes are research-based and cost-beneficial. But, most importantly, it’s the right thing to do,” said Deputy Secretary for Juvenile Justice William Lassiter. “North Carolina has a rich history of juvenile justice reform that led to massive reductions in juvenile crime and set the stage for continued reforms like raising the upper age and lower age of juvenile jurisdiction.”
For 6- to 15-year-olds, the North Carolina juvenile delinquency rate decreased from 27.55 in 2010 to 12.05 per 1,000 youth in 2020, the lowest juvenile delinquency rate on record. Over the past decade (2010-2019), detention center admissions declined 63% and youth development center commitments decreased 59%.
Equipped with coloring books and crayons, juvenile court counselors previously sought to occupy the minds of younger children while in the courtroom to reinforce appropriate behavior during court hearings. Now, armed with vulnerable juvenile consultations, the power of service referrals, screenings, assessments, community resources, and programming, juvenile court counselors can offer services to the young child and the parent without exposing that young child to court processes they do not understand.
S207/S.L. 2021-123 updates G.S. 7B-2502 regarding a court’s authority to order a comprehensive clinical/mental health assessment for adjudicated delinquent youth with suspected mental illness (i.e., severe emotional disturbance), developmental disability, or intellectual disability prior to entering a disposition/consequence. A multi-system Care Review Team may be created for these youth who are subject to a youth development center disposition or placement in a Psychiatric Residential Treatment Facility to recommend a plan for care.
“This group will determine what is the best placement for the youth,” said Juvenile Justice Director of Clinical Services and Programs Peter Kuhns. “I expect this part of the law will highlight some of the mental health issues we have in the state, such as the need for more mental health resources, the need for alternatives to commitment, and the need to invest resources to meet the needs.”
S207/S.L. 2021-123 also allows for prosecutorial discretion in whether to transfer a 16- or 17-year old to superior court for a felony class D, E, F, or G offense.
“Prosecutorial discretion allows prosecutors to decide what is more appropriate for a kid who commits D-G felonies,” said JJAC member and chief district court judge for New Hanover and Pender counties Judge J.H. Corpening, II.
Gov. Cooper signed the bill on Aug. 30, and Juvenile Justice provided informational sessions to community stakeholders and trained Juvenile Justice staff on the legislative changes. It also provided training to mental health providers and others involved in juvenile justice.