Victim Rights in Juvenile Court

[Editor’s note: We’re excited to welcome our new colleague LaToya Powell to the blog. LaToya’s work at the School of Government focuses on juvenile justice, especially the law of juvenile delinquency. Because of the close relationship between juvenile law and criminal law, we hope she will write for the blog from time to time.]

Recently, I was asked by a prosecutor whether the Crime Victims’ Rights Act (CVRA) – Article 46 of Chapter 15A – applies to juvenile delinquency cases. The answer is:  probably not, but flip the page to Article 45.

The CVRA provides victims of certain felonies and serious misdemeanors the right to participate in all critical stages of a criminal trial, including post-trial proceedings. It also requires court officials (i.e., prosecutors, probation officers, etc.) to make several post-trial notifications to victims, including the final disposition of the case, the terms of the defendant’s incarceration or probation period, and the date and location of any probation violation hearings. See G.S. 15A-835, -836, and -837. However, the CVRA defines a victim as “a person against whom . . . one of the [listed] crimes was committed.” G.S. 15A-830(a)(7). It also defines an accused as “a person who has been arrested and charged with committing a crime covered by this Article.” G.S. 15A-830(a)(1).

In NC, juveniles are not arrested, and they commit delinquent acts, not crimes. See G.S. 7B-2412 (“[a]n adjudication that a juvenile is delinquent . . . shall neither be considered conviction of any criminal offense nor cause the juvenile to forfeit any citizenship rights.”). Due to this statutory distinction between delinquent acts and crimes, it is unlikely that the CVRA applies to juvenile delinquency proceedings. See In re D.L.H., 364 N.C. 214, 222 (2010) (cautioning lower courts against applying criminal procedure statutes to juvenile proceedings when the law does not explicitly require it).

It’s also instructive that the statutory definitions applicable to the CVRA do not specifically mention delinquent acts; whereas, its predecessor, Article 45 of Chapter 15A, explicitly includes them. Article 45, entitled “Fair Treatment for Certain Victims and Witnesses,” defines a crime as “a felony or serious misdemeanor . . . or any act committed by a juvenile that, if committed by a competent adult, would constitute a felony or serious misdemeanor.” G.S. 15A-824(1). This language clearly reflects the legislature’s awareness of the difference between crimes and delinquent acts by juveniles. Thus, the absence of such language in the CVRA, enacted several years later, suggests the legislature did not intend for the CVRA to apply to victims of juvenile delinquency.

Why does it matter? While Article 45 generally recognizes the rights of victims “to be present throughout the entire trial” and “during the final disposition of the case,” see G.S. 15A-825, it is much more limited in scope than the CVRA. There are no post-trial notification provisions, unless the defendant either escapes or is released from custody, see G.S. 15A-825(11)-(12), and compliance with Article 45 is not mandatory. Instead, court officials are simply directed to comply “[t]o the extent reasonably possible and subject to available resources[.]” Id. As a result, the CVRA provides more meaningful protections to victims that extend well beyond the offender’s conviction.

It’s unclear why Article 45 includes delinquent acts, and the CVRA does not. Yet, the CVRA’s exclusion of juveniles seems consistent with the Juvenile Code’s emphasis on confidentiality in juvenile proceedings. See G.S. 7B-3000, 7B-3001, and 7B-3100(b). Although juvenile delinquency hearings are open, see G.S. 7B-2402, the Code strictly prohibits the disclosure of information about juveniles to the public. Ignoring the inherent conflict of interest here, most victim notifications required by the CVRA would violate the confidentiality provisions of the Code. In fact, the Code authorizes victim notification in only one instance – notification of the juvenile’s release from a youth development center for an offense that would have been a Class A or B1 felony, if committed by an adult. See G.S. 7B-2513(j), and G.S. 7B-2514(d). However, these notifications rarely occur because only 2% of all delinquency complaints involve alleged A-E felonies, according to the most recent Annual Report of the Division of Juvenile Justice.

Prosecutors and other juvenile justice officials who are unsure about their obligations to victims should look to Article 45 for guidance rather than the CVRA. Its recognition of a victim’s right to participate in the process, while limiting access to information about offenders, is more consistent with the Juvenile Code.

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