501.1Juvenile Prosecutions

Basic Concepts, Recent Changes to Laws
Last Updated: 10/14/20

Key Concepts

  • Juveniles between the age of 6 and 16 (or 18, for offenses committed on or after 12/1/19) who commit an act which would be a criminal offense if committed by an adult are not charged with a crime in a traditional criminal court; instead, they are alleged to have committed a delinquent act, and a petition on the matter is heard in juvenile court.
  • The purpose of juvenile court is not only to protect the public and prevent future offenses, but also to meet the needs of the juvenile and help him or her become a responsible and productive member of the community.
  • Because juvenile proceedings are not true criminal prosecutions, the terminology and processes used in juvenile court are quite different – but there are many parallels between the basic concepts which apply in both courts.
  • All juveniles are presumed to be indigent, and have both a statutory and constitutional right to be represented by counsel at all critical stages of the proceedings.
  • Victims have a statutory right to be kept involved and informed regarding the progress of the juvenile case.

Concepts and Goals

Juvenile delinquency proceedings are not “criminal” cases that are prosecuted – rather, they are a special type of civil proceeding conducted in a district court, and governed largely by their own set of statutes. However, since the cases involve conduct which is criminal in nature, the prosecutor plays an important role in the proceedings. The prosecutor must represent the state in all “contested” delinquency hearings, including first appearance, detention, probable cause, transfer, adjudication, disposition, probation revocation, post-release supervision, and extended jurisdiction hearings. See G.S. 7B-2404(a); 7B-2202(b)(1).

The primary goals of juvenile proceedings are to: (i) protect the public from acts of delinquency; (ii) deter delinquency, other crimes, and repeat offenses; (iii) provide swift and effective dispositions that emphasize the juvenile’s accountability; and (iv) provide appropriate rehabilitative services to juveniles and families. See G.S. 7B-1500(1), (2).

The juvenile statutes are designed to: (i) provide an effective process for the intake, screening and evaluation of complaints; (ii) refer juveniles to community-based resources when not contrary to public safety; and (iii) ensure fairness and equity, and protect the rights of juveniles, parents, and victims. See G.S. 7B-1500(3), (4).

When a juvenile has been found delinquent, the purpose of imposing a disposition is to: (i) meet the needs of the juvenile; (ii) promote public safety; (iii) emphasize accountability and responsibility of both the juvenile and his or her parent or guardian; and (iv) provide appropriate consequences, treatment, training and rehabilitation to help the juvenile avoid re-offending and become a responsible and productive member of the community. See G.S. 7B-2500.

Terminology and Basic Procedure Overview:

Juvenile proceedings are not criminal trials, but many of the procedures for resolving delinquency allegations serve as a parallel to the way that adult cases are handled in criminal court. Each of these topics is discussed in greater detail in subsequent entries, but for ease of reference the differences in common terminology are summarized below:

Term:

Adult/Criminal Court:

Juvenile Court:

Party:

Defendant

Respondent or Juvenile

Case Name:

State of NC vs. John Q. Smith

In re: J.Q.S.

Charging Procedure:

Officer swears out a warrant, grand jury returns an indictment, etc.

Complaint, Intake process

Charging Document:

Citation, Warrant, Indictment, Statement of Charges, etc.

Juvenile Petition

Decision-maker for Charges:

Officer, magistrate, grand jury (and/or prosecutor)

Court counselor (and/or prosecutor)

Custody:

Arrest, jail, pre-trial release, etc.

Temporary, secure, or nonsecure custody

Plea:

Guilty or not guilty

Admit or deny

Fact-finding:

Trial

Adjudication

Decision:

Convicted or acquitted

Adjudicated delinquent, or case is dismissed

Result:

Sentence

Disposition

Detention:

Prison

Commitment

A “delinquent juvenile” is a juvenile who, while being at least 6 years of age but less than 16 years of age (or less than 18 years of age, effective for offenses committed on or after 12/1/19 – see more on this below), commits an offense which would be a crime or infraction under state law or an ordinance of local government if committed by an adult, including a violation of motor vehicle laws, or who commits indirect contempt by a juvenile as defined in G.S. 5A-31. See G.S. 7B-1501(7).

A delinquency case is commenced in juvenile court by the filing of a petition. In most cases, this is initiated when a law enforcement officer (or a citizen) presents a complaint to a juvenile court counselor, who then decides whether to file a petition alleging the delinquent act. If a felony is alleged, there must be a first appearance hearing and a subsequent probable cause hearing, unless the hearing  is waived. A secure or nonsecure custody hearing must also be held if the juvenile is placed in custody pending the adjudicatory hearing. A transfer hearing (sending the case to criminal superior court) must be held if: (i) the juvenile is 13, 14, or 15 years old; (ii) is alleged to have committed a felony; and (iii) either a party or the court requests that the matter be transferred to superior court for criminal trial.

The adjudication is an evidentiary hearing conducted before a district court judge to determine whether the allegations in the petition have been proven beyond a reasonable doubt. The state is represented by a prosecutor, and the juvenile must be represented by counsel. If a juvenile is adjudicated to be delinquent, a dispositional hearing will be held to determine the disposition to be ordered. Post-dispositional hearings may be conducted to address alleged violations of probation or post-release supervision, requests for extended commitment, and review hearings.

Undisciplined Juveniles

An “undisciplined juvenile” is a juvenile who, while being at least 6 years of age but less than 16 years of age, is unlawfully absent from school, regularly disobedient and out of the control of his or her parents or guardians, regularly found in places where it is unlawful to be, or has run away from home for more than 24 hours. See G.S. 7B-1501(27)(a). The term “undisciplined” also applies to any juvenile who is 16 or 17 years of age and engages in those same behaviors, with the exception of the requirement to attend school regularly. See G.S. 7B-1501(27)(b).

Undisciplined petitions usually involve conduct by the juvenile which is disobedient, disrespectful, and possibly even dangerous, but does not rise to the level of being a criminal act. Nevertheless, the prosecutor serving in juvenile court will be called upon to represent the state on undisciplined petitions as well. The process for conducting intake and adjudication hearings on undisciplined petitions is governed by the same statutory processes which apply to delinquency petitions, but the disposition options for undisciplined juveniles are generally milder. For example, while delinquent juveniles may be placed on “probation,” undisciplined juveniles are only placed on “protective supervision,” which lasts for a shorter period of time and has less severe sanctions for any violations. See G.S. 7B-2503; G.S. 7B-2505.

The remainder of the entries in this section focus only on delinquency cases, unless specifically noted otherwise. For ease of reference, the most important statutes in which undisciplined juvenile cases are handled differently from delinquency cases are as follows:

G.S. 7B-1600   Jurisdiction over undisciplined juveniles
G.S. 7B-2503   Dispositional alternatives for undisciplined juveniles
G.S. 7B-2504   Conditions of protective supervision for undisciplined juveniles
G.S. 7B-2505   Violation of protective supervision by undisciplined juvenile

Juveniles’ Rights & Protections

1. Right to Counsel

All juveniles are presumed to be indigent (they do not need to fill out an affidavit of indigency), and have a right to be represented by appointed counsel at all delinquency proceedings, unless the juvenile (or a parent/guardian on the juvenile’s behalf) has already hired retained counsel. See G.S. 7B-2000; In re Gault, 387 U.S. 1 (1967). This right to counsel also includes post-adjudication proceedings such as probation violations and appeals, but it does not include expunction hearings. See G.S. 7A-451. By statute, the juvenile must be advised of his or her right to counsel during any custodial questioning, and questioning must cease if the juvenile invokes that right. See G.S. 7B-2101(a)(4); 2101(c); see also J.D.B. v. North Carolina, 564 U.S. 261 (2011). For general information on the various stages of a case where the right to counsel applies, see the related Pretrial entry on Right to Counsel: When the Right Applies.

2. Trial Rights

Juveniles do not have a right to trial by jury. See McKiever v. Pennsylvania, 403 U.S. 528 (1971). Juveniles do not possess other trial rights (such as bail or speedy trial) unless and until the case is transferred to superior court for trial as an adult. See, e.g., G.S. 7B-2204. The procedural rights which juveniles do have in connection with adjudication proceedings are set forth by statute (e.g., notice, counsel, confront witnesses, discovery). See G.S. 7B-2405.

3. Capacity to Proceed

G.S. 7B-2401 expressly provides that G.S. 15A-1001 (No proceedings when defendant mentally incapacitated; exception), 15A-1002 (Determination of incapacity to proceed; evidence; temporary commitment; orders), and 15A-1003 (Referral of incapable defendant for civil commitment proceedings) apply to questions of capacity to proceed for juveniles in delinquency cases. For more information, see the related entry on Capacity to Proceed – Determining CapacityG.S. 7B-2401 prohibits any juvenile committed under these provisions from being placed in a situation where he or she will come into contact with adult defendants who have been committed, so appropriate precautions must be taken to ensure separation at all times. 

Victims’ Rights and Protections

Victims have important rights regarding their participation in juvenile proceedings, including the right to be kept informed about significant developments in the case. Some of these provisions have existed in the statutes for many years, while others were recently added as part of the Juvenile Justice Reinvestment Act (see below) and took effect on October 1, 2017. Several key protections which prosecutors and court counselors should keep in mind are briefly summarized below:

  1. Intake Evaluation
    Juvenile court counselors are supposed to speak with the victim as part of the evaluation process when deciding whether to file a petition or recommend diversion. See G.S. 7B-1702(1).
  2. Sexual Assaults
    G.S. 15A-831.1 prohibits a juvenile justice agency from requiring a person who claims to be either a sexual assault victim or a witness to a sexual assault on another person to submit to a polygraph or similar examination as a precondition to conducting an investigation of the alleged assault.
  3. Crime Victims’ Rights Act
    G.S. 15A-830(a)(7) defines “victim” as the person against whom a “crime” was committed, so arguably it does not apply to “delinquent acts” committed by a juvenile. However, under Article 45 of G.S. Chapter 15A (G.S. 15A-824 et seq.), “Fair Treatment of Certain Victims and Witnesses," the term "crime" is defined to include a felony or serious misdemeanor committed by a juvenile. Therefore, even if the CVRA does not apply in juvenile cases, the protections afforded to victims under the other statutes would. 
  4. Notification of Filing Decision
    G.S. 7B-1703(c) requires the court counselor to provide written notification to both the complainant and the victim if the counselor decides not to approve filing a petition based on the complaint, and the notification must also advise the victim that he or she has the right to request a review of that decision by the prosecutor.
  5. Prosecutor Review
    When the prosecutor reviews a court counselor’s decision not to approve a petition, G.S. 7B-1705 dictates that the review must include a conference with the complainant, victim, and court counselor, and the prosecutor must notify both the complainant and the victim of the prosecutor’s decision at the end of the review.
  6. Access to Information
    G.S. 143B-806(b)(14a) directs the Division of Adult Correction and Juvenile Justice to implement a system to inform victims and complainants about the status  of pending complaints, and of their right to request a review of a decision not to file a complaint as discussed in 4 and 5 above.
  7. "Rights of Victims of Delinquent Acts"
    In September of 2019, Article 20A (G.S. 7B-2051 to 2058) was also added to the Juvenile Code, formalizing the rights of victims in juvenile delinquency cases to be kept informed about the case, confer with the prosecutor, be present for hearings, and have a reasonable opportunity to be heard at court proceedings. For more information, see Jacqui Greene, "New Delinquency Law - It's Not Just Raise the Age," N.C. Criminal Law Blog, Sep. 24, 2019.

Juvenile Justice Reinvestment Act

In June of 2017, the General Assembly passed legislation that made several important changes to both the jurisdiction and procedure of juvenile courts. For a helpful summary of all these changes, see Raise the Age is Now the Law in North Carolina," Latoya Powell, N.C. Criminal Law Blog, August 31, 2017.

The most significant aspect of this legislation is that it raised the age of criminal responsibility (i.e., the age when cases will go into adult criminal court instead of juvenile court) from age 16 up to age 18 for most offenses. This provision applies to offenses committed on or after December 1, 2019. The juvenile court’s original jurisdiction will continue up to age 19 for offenses committed by 16-year-olds and age 20 for 17-year-olds -- beyond that age, the juvenile court’s jurisdiction is usually limited to conducting a probable cause and transfer hearing to send the case to adult court. For more specific information on these changes, see the related Juvenile entry on Jurisdiction and Venue. For more information on transferring juvenile cases to criminal court, see the related Juvenile entry on Transfer Hearings.

There are some important exceptions to the new juvenile age limits. Most notably, Chapter 20 motor vehicle offenses committed by 16- and 17-year-olds will still be prosecuted in regular criminal court. Additionally, any 16- or 17-year old juvenile who has previously been convicted in either district or superior court as an adult (for any offense except a Chapter 20 motor vehicle offense punishable only as an infraction or misdemeanor, excluding impaired driving offenses) shall be prosecuted as an adult for any subsequent offense, regardless of the juvenile's age. G.S. 7B-1604(b). Finally, any Class A-G felonies committed by 16- and 17-year olds will originate in juvenile court, but they will be subject to “mandatory transfer” to adult court upon indictment or a finding of probable cause. 

The legislation also made a number of other changes (some of which went into effect immediately, and others which took effect for offenses committed on or after 12/1/19) regarding victims’ rights, “gang assessments” of juveniles, access to and use of juvenile records, and school notifications. These changes are incorporated into the discussion of the respective topics in the following entries. 

Finally, effective July 1, 2017, the Act made changes to the minimum standards for entry-level law enforcement officer training, which must now include: (i) handling and processing juvenile matters for referrals, diversions, arrests, and detention; (ii) best practices for handling incidents involving juveniles; (iii) adolescent development and psychology; and (iv) promoting relationship-building with youth for delinquency prevention.

Portions of this entry were excerpted from the 2017 North Carolina Juvenile Defender Manual, Chapters 1 and 19, by David W. Andrews and John Rubin.