North Carolina Juvenile Justice: A Parent’s Guide for Children in Trouble

Nobody wants to be the parent of the local “bad kid.” As a parent, you do your best to give your son or daughter a proper footing in life—a way to ground behavior in moral rules.

But it doesn’t always work. Kids need to find their own paths through life, and often—especially in the teenage years—that can mean rejecting their parents’ values and advice. The good news is that this is usually an experimental phase. Even those children who express their rebellion by acting against the law usually only get in minor trouble. Most children eventually straighten out their lives and proceed to a responsible adulthood.

The bad news is that, late some night, you might get a phone call that your child has been arrested.

Understanding a juvenile arrest in North Carolina

First off: don’t panic. Your son may be in trouble, but you don’t know yet how serious the trouble may be. In any event, that’s a long-term consideration. In the short term, you need to recognize that your child is safe and unharmed. Even if he ends up spending a night in jail, that won’t be a disaster.

The juvenile justice system in North Carolina takes special pains to make sure that children are not traumatized by the legal system. Technically speaking, juveniles under age 16 are not arrested, but are taken into temporary custody. Older minors—especially those accused of serious criminal acts—may be subject to adult arrests.

If your son is arrested as an adult, he will be confined in jail until bail arrangements can be made. Otherwise, a juvenile justice intake counselor or other official will decide whether your child can be released to go home while his case is pending. If that’s not possible, your son may remain in custody at a foster home or other establishment.

Age matters for the charges

If your son is age 16 or 17 and has been accused of a criminal offense, he can be prosecuted as an adult.

Juveniles who are 13 to 15 years old may be prosecuted as adults if the offenses they are alleged to have committed would be felonies. A District Court judge will make the decision whether to keep a child this young in the juvenile system, or to allow prosecution in adult Superior Court.

Children younger than 13 cannot be tried as adults.

A child age 6 to 15 who is accused of an offense that would be an adult crime under state law or local ordinance is not held to the full adult penalty of the law. That child will be classified as a delinquent juvenile if the charges are borne out.

A child age 6 to 17 who is accused of certain acts called “status offenses” will be classified as an undisciplined juvenile if the charges are borne out. Status offenses are acts that are illegal only because the person committing them is underage. About 11 percent of the complaints against juveniles are for status offenses. Those acts include:

  • Truancy, or unlawful absence from school (applies only to children up to age 15)

  • Disobedience and being beyond disciplinary control of parents, guardians, or custodians

  • Purchasing or attempting to purchase tobacco products

  • Consuming alcoholic beverages

  • Frequenting a place, such as a tavern, where it is unlawful for a minor to be

  • Running away from home for more than 24 hours

Your child’s rights after an arrest

The juvenile justice system in North Carolina does not grant a child all the legal rights an adult criminal defendant would have. However, the right to be represented by a North Carolina juvenile defense attorney is preserved in every delinquency case, and section 7B-2000 of the North Carolina Juvenile Code provides for a court-appointed attorney for any juvenile who wants one.

If your child is arrested, you may wish to hire the services of an experienced Wilmington legal defense team instead of accepting a court-appointed attorney. The criminal defense lawyers at Speaks Law Firm are ready to help you understand what your son or daughter will be facing over the next few weeks. Call us today at 910-341-7570 or toll-free at 877-593-4233. The earlier we can begin work on your child’s defense case, the better.

R. Clarke Speaks
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Trial Lawyer and Founder of Speaks Law Firm, P.C.