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North Carolina, Juvenile Court Jurisdiction, and the Resistance to Reform

55 Pages Posted: 31 Jul 2008  

Tamar R. Birckhead

Yale Law School; University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Law


North Carolina is the only state in the United States that treats all sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds as adults when they are charged with criminal offenses and then denies them the ability to appeal for return to the juvenile system. Thirty-seven states cap juvenile court jurisdiction at age eighteen, while ten do so at seventeen. In addition, as reflected by international treaties and instruments, many nations of the world consider eighteen to be the most appropriate age for delineating between juvenile and adult court jurisdiction. Not surprisingly, the consequences of North Carolina's scheme for prosecuting minors can be particularly severe. The approximately 26,000 sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds who are convicted each year in North Carolina's criminal court system encounter significant barriers when attempting to secure employment or access higher education. According to empirical research, a less punitive approach to youth crime lowers recidivism rates and better protects public safety. Further, providing intensive probationary supervision and rehabilitation to young offenders, rather than incarcerating them with adults, is consistent with recent findings in the areas of brain development and adolescent psychology. Nonetheless, resistance to raising the age of juvenile court jurisdiction in North Carolina has been steadfast, with vocal opposition from law enforcement and prosecutors.

This Article examines the repeated attempts by advocates and lawmakers to raise the age of juvenile court jurisdiction in North Carolina. Grounded in primary source materials and legislative records, the Article demonstrates that there has been a recurring pattern over the past century: despite the backing of scholars, child welfare experts, and prominent legislators, proposals to extend jurisdiction from age sixteen to ages seventeen or eighteen have been consistently defeated. Although the precise reasons for North Carolina's refusal to join the majority are difficult, if not impossible, to identify, this Article suggests several likely causes: the self-perpetuating claim by opponents of raising the age that an already-underfunded system should not be expanded; the enduring power of the specter of youth violence; and the continued reluctance of the bench and bar to view juvenile court as a critical forum requiring specialization and commitment from its participants, rather than a mere training ground for inexperienced judges and lawyers. Finally, the Article argues that an appreciation and understanding of the historical context should cause lawmakers to revisit the issue with a greater sense of urgency, providing them with the momentum needed to break with the status quo and to raise the age of juvenile court jurisdiction in North Carolina.

Keywords: North Carolina, juvenile court, jurisdiction, age, legal history, recidivism, reentry, adolescent psychology, brain development, empirical research, public safety, probation, rehabilitation, legislation, court funding, youthful offender

Suggested Citation

Birckhead, Tamar R., North Carolina, Juvenile Court Jurisdiction, and the Resistance to Reform. North Carolina Law Review, Vol. 86, No. 6, 2008; UNC Legal Studies Research Paper No. 1183022. Available at SSRN:

Tamar R. Birckhead (Contact Author)

Yale Law School ( email )

P.O. Box 208215
New Haven, CT 06520-8215
United States

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University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Law ( email )

Van Hecke-Wettach Hall, 160 Ridge Road
CB #3380
Chapel Hill, NC 27599-3380
United States

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