A Juvenile Justice Reform Proposal for North Carolina

As many of you know (mainly because you’ve tried to contact me and I haven’t been available!) Chief Justice Mark Martin appointed me to serve as Reporter for the Criminal Committee of the North Carolina Commission on the Administration of Law and Justice (NCCALJ). This month the NCCALJ is holding public hearings on its reform proposals. One draft proposal, from the Criminal Committee, calls for North Carolina to join the majority of states in the nation and raise the juvenile age to 18. This post provides an update on the Committee’s work on that issue and hopefully will facilitate your comments on the draft proposal.

North Carolina currently treats 16- and 17-year-olds like adults for purposes of criminal justice. Consider Tommy, who gets into a school fight a day after his 16th birthday. Tommy is arrested. Because he can’t pay his secured bond, he’s detained in the local jail, with adult defendants. Tommy’s case proceeds to adult criminal court without any required parental involvement. Tommy is convicted and serves his sentence in adult prison. His criminal record is publicly available, making him ineligible for employment, public education, and college financial aid, among other things.

What would have happened if the fight occurred just two days earlier? Kids under 16 who commit crimes are treated as delinquent in the juvenile justice system. A court counselor could divert Tommy’s case, requiring him to participate in rehabilitative programs like counseling and teen court. If Tommy succeeds on diversion, his case could be closed. If not, it could go to juvenile court, with his parents required to participate. If Tommy is found delinquent, the judge would have a wide range of options for rehabilitation. If commitment is ordered, Tommy would go to a juvenile-only facility. The judge could require Tommy’s parents to do things like attend parental responsibility classes. And because Tommy’s juvenile record would be confidential, barriers to employment, education, college financial aid, and other consequences of a criminal conviction wouldn’t apply.

Juvenile age refers the age at which the State sends kids like Tommy to adult criminal court. The Commission’s Criminal Committee seeks public comment on its recommendation that North Carolina raise the juvenile age to 18 for all crimes except violent felonies and traffic offenses. Here is some of what the Committee found when it examined the issue:

  • Forty-three states plus the District of Columbia set the juvenile age at 18. Five set it at 17. Only two states—NC and NY—prosecute both 16- and 17-year olds in adult criminal court. Governors in South Carolina and Louisiana signed raise the age legislation as recently as June 2016; South Carolina’s law received unanimous support by the legislature.
  • In any given year, only 3 to 4% of NC 16- and 17-year olds are convicted of violent felonies. The vast majority commit misdemeanors.
  • Studies show that recidivism is lower for juveniles in the juvenile system than in the adult criminal system. Lower recidivism means less crime. Experts say that the juvenile system’s focus on rehabilitation accounts for these results.
  • Studies show that raising the age will produce long-term economic benefits for North Carolina, largely because of reduced recidivism.
  • Other states have enacted raise the age legislation over objections that public safety would suffer and that costs would be unmanageable; none of this came to pass.
  • While the criminal system cuts parents out of the process, the juvenile system requires their participation, creating opportunities for parents to influence their teens and thus strengthening families.
  • The science of brain development teaches that teens are less able than adults to regulate behavior and assess long-term consequences. These and other characteristics make them less culpable than adults, explain why most mature out of crime, and why the juvenile system’s positive responses work better than punitive criminal measures.
  • Raising the age removes a competitive disadvantage NC places on its citizens. When a North Carolinian applies for a job, his arrest for a teenaged school fight is discovered by the employer. For candidates from states other than NY or NC, their juvenile records are confidential and not discovered. North Carolina’s juvenile age thus put its citizens at a competitive disadvantage for jobs.
  • School-based complaints constitute almost half of the referrals to the juvenile system. Minor misbehavior that used to be handled in school now goes to the state justice system. Statewide implementation of school-justice programs designed to immediately and effectively deal with minor misbehavior in school will reduce juvenile case volume, freeing up money for raise the age. One such Georgia program reports an 83% reduction in school-based referrals; one North Carolina jurisdiction already is on board.


The Committee’s proposal recommends more than just raising the age. Its balanced proposal includes other recommendations to address stakeholder concerns, like making sure that defendants can’t run away from their juvenile records. Support for raise the age crosses party lines. North Carolina bills to do it have been supported by lawmakers in both parties and raise the age proposals and related efforts enjoy bipartisan support nationwide.

To read the draft report, find out about the public hearings or to provide comments online visit

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5 comments on “A Juvenile Justice Reform Proposal for North Carolina

  1. Can’t run away from their juvenile records? I have never ever heard of this concern before in any juvenile justice context. That has got to be the least important aspect of the entire concern. They should not even be called “records” since the CHILD does not have a constitutional right (yet) to a 6th Am jury trial.

  2. I think Cumberland County has a great system with teen court. They give the 16 & 17 year old the opportunity to be treated as juveniles and have a clear record with compliance.

    Also, if the age was raised, would we allow law enforcement officers to return runaways home that are 16 or 17? I think it is silly now that law enforcement will complete a runaway report and enter the person into DCI when they can’t make the person return home if found. It’s odd telling a parent that they’re responsible for their son or daughter, but we can’t bring them home.

  3. Your hypo about Tommy and how he’d be treated today for a school fight is irresponsible for someone in your position. Perhaps you should consult with your colleague and sentencing expert, Jamie Markham, before posting. It’s one thing for an uninformed citizen to make their argument to raise the juvenile age in this manner, but another for an SOG professor to do so. Raising the age may be a good thing in certain situations, but we expect facts, without exaggeration, from the SOG.

  4. The age should be raised to 18. Teenagers barely know what they’re doing to begin with…no life experience, etc. Everyone makes mistakes, especially in their teens. It’s absolutely absurd to treat 16 & 17 year olds as adults! (18yr olds too for that matter)

  5. I understood the Tommy hypothetical to be describing a scenario that is possible under current law, not making a categorical assertion that anyone in Tommy’s circumstances would in fact be so treated today. The hypothetical seemed neither exaggerated nor irresponsible to me. But then, it’s certainly possible that I am an uninformed citizen, and I welcome the opportunity to be educated by those who prefer engaging in productive dialogue over anonymously delivering gratuitous comedowns to School of Government professors.