Juvenile Delinquency

Find information about juvenile court, filing a complaint, court process, and more.

General Information

What is juvenile court?

Juvenile court is the court system that handles complaints against children who are alleged to be delinquent or undisciplined. When children engage in conduct that would be considered a crime if committed by an adult, the behavior is referred to as a “delinquent act.” When they engage in conduct that is inappropriate for minors but does not amount to a crime, such as running away from home or skipping school, they are considered to be “undisciplined.” Juvenile courts can adjudicate children as being delinquent or undisciplined and impose consequences that seek to rehabilitate rather than punish them. The proceedings are intended to be more informal and protective than a criminal trial. Thus, an adjudication that a juvenile is delinquent or undisciplined is not a public record and may not be disclosed to the public without a court order.

“Juvenile court” also can refer to the court that handles child welfare cases. For more information about child welfare cases, see the Abuse, Neglect, and Dependency Help Topic.

Who is a “juvenile?”

North Carolina law defines a juvenile as any person under the age of 18 who is not married, emancipated, or in the military. However, the juvenile court only has jurisdiction over juveniles who are alleged to be delinquent or undisciplined. For delinquency cases, the juvenile court has jurisdiction over children who are at least 6 but less than 16 years of age. For undisciplined cases, the juvenile court has jurisdiction over children who are at least 6 but less than 18 years of age.

On December 1, 2019, North Carolina’s “raise the age” law will become effective and will increase the jurisdiction of juvenile court for delinquency cases to include 16- and 17-year-olds who commit misdemeanors and non-violent felonies. However, 16- and 17-year-olds will still be charged as adults for violent felonies and motor vehicle offenses.

When can juveniles be charged as adults?

Juveniles are automatically charged as adults for any crime they allegedly commit at age 16 or older (18 or older beginning December 1, 2019). However, juveniles who are age 13 or older who allegedly commit a felony may be “transferred” to adult criminal court, if a judge finds probable cause that the juvenile committed the offense and conducts a transfer hearing. If a judge finds probable cause that a juvenile who is 13 or older committed a Class A felony, such as first-degree murder, the judge must transfer the case to adult criminal court without a transfer hearing.

Is an adjudication of delinquency the same as a criminal conviction?

No. An adjudication of delinquency in juvenile court is not a conviction of a crime nor does it cause the juvenile to forfeit any citizenship rights. Also, unlike a criminal conviction, an adjudication of delinquency is not a public record.

Do juveniles have the right to an attorney?

Yes. All juveniles have the right to be represented by an attorney in juvenile court proceedings, whether alleged to be undisciplined or delinquent. However, only juveniles who are alleged to be delinquent are entitled to a court-appointed attorney paid for by the State. Parents who can afford to pay may be ordered to reimburse the State for the attorney’s fees. Parents also may choose to hire a private attorney to represent their child in juvenile court.

What can a juvenile expect from his or her attorney?

The attorney will explain the court process and options to the juvenile. The attorney will assist the juvenile in deciding how to handle the case, but the juvenile must decide whether to admit responsibility, request a hearing, or testify at a hearing. The attorney follows the direction of the juvenile (not the parent) in handling the case and is required to keep the juvenile’s communications with him or her confidential. For this reason, attorneys generally meet with juvenile clients without a parent or guardian present.

Does the court have jurisdiction over the juvenile’s parents or guardians?

Yes. A juvenile’s parent or guardian is required to appear in court with the juvenile and bring the juvenile to all scheduled hearings. The court may order a parent or guardian to provide transportation to meetings, take parental responsibility classes, pay for treatment or services for the juvenile, and pay the attorney’s fees for the juvenile. The court also may order a parent or guardian to obtain a mental health or substance abuse evaluation and comply with any recommended treatment. A parent or guardian may be held in contempt of court for not complying with orders of the court.

Is juvenile court open to the public?

Yes. All juvenile court hearings are open to the public. However, a judge may close the courtroom, for good cause, to protect sensitive information about the juvenile, the juvenile’s family, or victims from public disclosure. If a judge closes the courtroom to the public, the judge may allow any victim, family members of a victim, law enforcement officers, witnesses, and others who are directly involved in the case to remain in the courtroom.

Are juvenile court records confidential?

Yes. Juvenile court hearings are open to the public, but the records of these proceedings are confidential. In order to protect the privacy of children who are involved in these proceedings, juvenile court records may be accessed only by authorized persons, such as the juvenile, the juvenile’s parent or guardian, the juvenile’s attorney, prosecutors, juvenile court counselors, and some probation officers. Public disclosure of juvenile records is prohibited without a court order.

What are some frequently used terms in juvenile court?

Some of the most commonly used juvenile court terms are defined below:

  • Adjudication: An adjudication is a finding by a judge, following an adjudicatory hearing, that a juvenile committed a delinquent act or is undisciplined.
  • Adjudicatory Hearing: An adjudicatory hearing is a court proceeding, similar to a criminal trial, in which a judge determines whether a juvenile is delinquent or undisciplined.
  • Admission: An admission occurs when a juvenile admits the allegations in the petition. Juveniles do not plead “guilty” or “not guilty” in juvenile court; they either admit or deny responsibility.
  • Complaint: A complaint is a written allegation that a juvenile is delinquent or undisciplined, which is submitted to a juvenile court counselor for evaluation.
  • Delinquent Juvenile: A juvenile who is at least 6 but less than 16 may be adjudicated delinquent if the juvenile commits an offense that would be considered a crime or infraction if committed by an adult.
  • Detention Center: A detention center is a locked facility for juveniles, similar to a jail, where juveniles can be held while waiting for a court hearing or when ordered by the court to serve a period of secure confinement for a delinquent act.
  • Dismissal: A dismissal is the process by which a prosecutor or a judge decides not to proceed with a petition against a juvenile.
  • Disposition: A disposition is an order entered by the court at the conclusion of a disposition hearing that provides a plan to address the juvenile’s needs and provide accountability for the juvenile’s actions.
  • Disposition Hearing: A disposition hearing is a court proceeding in which a judge considers written reports and other evidence concerning the juvenile’s needs to determine an appropriate disposition. It is similar to the sentencing portion of a criminal trial.
  • Diversion: A diversion is the referral of a juvenile to a community based program or service, prior to the filing of a juvenile petition, which provides an alternative to court.
  • Felony: See the Criminal Cases Help Topic for a definition of this term.
  • Intake Evaluation: An intake evaluation involves the screening and evaluation of a complaint by a juvenile court counselor to determine whether a juvenile petition should be filed.
  • Juvenile Court Counselor: A juvenile court counselor accepts juvenile complaints for evaluation, supervises juveniles who are on probation or protective supervision, and works closely with juveniles and their families as they navigate the juvenile court process.
  • Misdemeanor: See the Criminal Cases Help Topic for a definition of this term.
  • Non-Secure Custody: Non-secure custody is the temporary placement of a juvenile in the care of a responsible adult, other than the juvenile’s parent or guardian, such as a relative, licensed foster home, or other residential placement.
  • Petition: A petition is the formal pleading that initiates a juvenile court case, which must be filed by a juvenile court counselor.
  • Probation: Probation is a dispositional option for delinquent juveniles that requires the juvenile to be supervised by a juvenile court counselor and follow specific terms or conditions ordered by the court.
  • Protective Supervision: Protective supervision is a dispositional option for undisciplined juveniles that requires the juvenile to be supervised by a juvenile court counselor and follow specific terms or conditions ordered by the court.
  • Secure Custody: Secure custody is the placement of a juvenile in a locked facility, such as a detention center.
  • Undisciplined Juvenile: A juvenile who is at least 6 but less than 18 may be adjudicated as undisciplined if the juvenile is regularly disobedient to his or her parent or guardian, regularly found in places where it is unlawful for a juvenile to be, or has run away from home for more than 24 hours. A juvenile who is at least 6 but less than 16 also may be adjudicated undisciplined for being unlawfully absent from school.
  • Youth Development Center: A youth development center (YDC) is a secure residential facility that provides long-term treatment, education, and rehabilitation for youth who have been adjudicated delinquent.

What is family court?

Family court is available in some districts / counties in North Carolina. A major goal of family court is to consolidate and assign a family's legal issues before a single district court judge or team of judges. Parent education programs also may be available. Together, the dedicated family court judges and staff implement policies that promote prompt and just resolution of family law issues. Learn more.

Filing a Juvenile Complaint

How can I file a juvenile complaint?

A juvenile complaint must be filed with a juvenile court counselor in the county where the alleged delinquent or undisciplined act occurred. Any person can submit a complaint to a juvenile court counselor. However, delinquency complaints typically are filed by law enforcement officers or school officials, and undisciplined complaints typically are filed by the juvenile’s parent or guardian. County specific contact information for juvenile justice officials within the N.C. Department of Public Safety is available here.

What happens when a juvenile court counselor receives a complaint?

When a complaint is received, a juvenile court counselor must complete an intake evaluation to review the complaint and determine whether to file a juvenile petition or resolve the matter without referring the juvenile to court. During the intake evaluation, the counselor will review available evidence, consider information about the juvenile’s background, and conduct interviews with the complainant, any victims, the juvenile, and the juvenile’s parent or guardian to determine an appropriate course of action. At the conclusion of the intake evaluation, which must be completed within 30 days, the counselor has three options: (1) file a juvenile petition to initiate court action, (2) offer the juvenile a diversion, or (3) close the complaint without further action.

What is a diversion?

A diversion is an alternative to court that involves a direct referral of the juvenile to a community based program or service for up to six months. If authorized, a juvenile court counselor can offer a diversion to the juvenile and the juvenile’s parents that requires the juvenile to participate in a community based program or service, remain on good behavior, and abide by any other agreed upon terms or conditions. Examples of common diversion programs include community service or restitution programs, victim-offender mediation, counseling, and teen court. If a juvenile successfully completes a diversion, the complaint will be closed without further action. If the juvenile does not comply with a diversion, the juvenile court counselor may file a petition and refer the matter to court.

Is diversion an available option in every case?

No. Certain felonies are “nondivertible,” which means that a juvenile court counselor must file a petition and refer the matter to court, if there are reasonable grounds to support the allegations. Nondivertible offenses include murder, first-degree and second-degree rape, first-degree and second-degree sexual offense, arson, felony drug offenses, first-degree burglary, crime against nature, and any felony that results in serious bodily injury to another person or was committed by use of a deadly weapon.

Can the complainant or victim request review of the juvenile court counselor’s decision not to file a petition?

Yes. If a juvenile court counselor decides not to file a juvenile petition, the counselor must send a letter to the complainant and victim explaining why a petition was not filed, specifying how the matter was resolved, and notifying the person of the right to have a prosecutor review the counselor’s decision. A complainant or victim must request review by the prosecutor within five calendar days of receiving notice of the counselor’s decision. If review is requested, the prosecutor will contact the complainant and victim to conduct the review, and upon completion, the prosecutor will either uphold the juvenile court counselor’s decision or direct the counselor to file a petition.

Juvenile Court Process

What are the steps in the juvenile court process?

The exact procedures in a particular case will vary depending on factors, such as whether the juvenile is alleged to be delinquent or undisciplined, whether the juvenile is in secure or nonsecure custody, and whether the juvenile is charged with a felony or misdemeanor, if alleged to be delinquent. Juveniles with questions about how their cases will proceed should consult with their attorneys for advice.

What happens at the adjudicatory hearing?

The adjudicatory hearing is the “trial” in the juvenile court process. The court will hear evidence presented by the parties to determine whether the facts alleged in the petition are true. Unless the juvenile enters an admission, the State has the burden of proof at the adjudicatory hearing. If the juvenile is alleged to be delinquent, the facts must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. If the juvenile is alleged to be undisciplined, the facts must be proven by clear and convincing evidence. During the adjudicatory hearing, juveniles are entitled to several due process rights, including the right to written notice of the allegations, the right to counsel, the right to confront and cross-examine witnesses, the right to remain silent, and the right to discovery. The juvenile should consult his or her attorney to discuss any specific questions about the adjudicatory hearing or how to assert these rights.

What happens at the disposition hearing?

The disposition hearing is similar to the sentencing phase of a criminal trial. However, a juvenile disposition is not a sentence. It is an individualized plan for a particular juvenile, designed to rehabilitate the juvenile but also hold him or her accountable for the delinquent or undisciplined behavior. The disposition hearing is less formal than the adjudicatory hearing, and the judge may receive any written reports or evidence that will help the judge determine the juvenile’s needs. The juvenile and the juvenile’s parents or guardians have the right to present evidence and advise the court regarding the disposition they believe to be in the juvenile’s best interests. Examples of information the court might consider at the disposition hearing include reports from juvenile court counselors, school records, mental health records, victim statements, and recommendations from the prosecutor or the juvenile’s attorney.

What dispositional options are available for delinquent juveniles?

When a juvenile is adjudicated delinquent, the judge can impose a range of dispositional options to meet the juvenile’s needs and hold him or her accountable for the delinquent act. The dispositional options authorized for a particular juvenile will depend on the juvenile’s delinquency history and the seriousness of the delinquent act (i.e., the misdemeanor or felony classification of the offense), but may include probation supervision, evaluation and treatment, community service, restitution, and confinement in a detention center or youth development center. You can read more about dispositional options for delinquent juveniles in G.S. 7B-2502 and G.S. 7B-2506.

What dispositional options are available for undisciplined juveniles?

When a juvenile is adjudicated undisciplined, the judge can impose a limited range of dispositional options to meet the juvenile’s needs and hold him or her accountable for the undisciplined act. Some of those options include placing the juvenile on protective supervision, ordering the juvenile to comply with evaluation and treatment, and placing the juvenile in the custody of a county department of social services or another agency. You can read more about dispositional options for undisciplined juveniles in G.S. 7B-2502 and G.S. 7B-2503.

When does the juvenile’s case end?

When a juvenile successfully completes the disposition, including any term of probation or protective supervision, the juvenile court counselor will recommend that the judge end the court process. A judge may terminate a juvenile’s supervision and/or the jurisdiction of the court without a hearing. If a juvenile completes all the required conditions of probation or protective supervision and remains on good behavior, the judge may allow probation or protective supervision to end early. Conversely, if a juvenile fails to comply with the required conditions, the judge may find the juvenile to be in violation of the juvenile’s probation or protective supervision and may extend the supervision for a longer period of time.

Going to Court

How soon is the juvenile’s first court date?

The scheduling of the juvenile’s first court hearing depends on the type of case. After the petition is filed, the clerk of superior court will issue a “summons” to the juvenile and the juvenile’s parent or guardian requiring them to appear in court for a hearing at a specified date and time. A copy of the juvenile petition should be attached to the summons. In addition to providing notice of the hearing, a summons informs juveniles and their parents or guardians of important rights and obligations, including the juvenile’s right to an attorney and the parent’s or guardian’s obligation to attend scheduled hearings in the case and bring the juvenile to court.

What happens if I miss court?

If you fail to attend a hearing for which you have been summoned to appear, the judge can issue a secure custody order for you, which means you could be placed in detention. The court also can find your parent or guardian in contempt of court, which could result in jail time or the payment of a fine. If you are unable to attend your court hearing, contact your attorney as soon as possible. Your attorney may be able to request a continuance from the judge.

What should I expect in court?

Many cases will be scheduled at the same time, and the court will handle cases one by one. Court may last an hour or two or a full day. Be prepared to sit and wait patiently in the courtroom or in a place designated by your attorney. It is possible that your case may not be resolved when you appear in court and may be continued to a later date.

Confinement and Custody of Juveniles

Can a juvenile be taken into custody (or arrested)?

Yes. In some circumstances, juveniles who are suspected of being delinquent or undisciplined can be taken into custody by a law enforcement officer or a juvenile court counselor. However, the term “arrest” is inappropriate and juveniles who are taken into custody may not be placed in an adult jail. A juvenile who is taken into temporary custody may be held for no more than 12 hours, or 24 hours if part of that time falls on a weekend or holiday, unless a juvenile petition has been filed and a judge has issued an order for secure or nonsecure custody. Any person who takes a juvenile into custody without a court order must notify the juvenile’s parents or guardians and inform them of their right to be present with the juvenile until a determination is made regarding the need for secure or nonsecure custody.

What is the difference between secure and nonsecure custody?

Secure and nonsecure custody refer to the temporary placement of a juvenile outside the juvenile’s home either in a juvenile detention center (secure custody) or a residential placement such as a relative’s home or foster care (nonsecure custody). The court typically orders secure custody for juveniles who commit serious offenses and demonstrate that they pose a danger to other persons or property, although it is authorized in other circumstances. The court may order nonsecure custody when a juvenile is eligible for secure custody but the court finds that nonsecure custody is in the juvenile’s best interests or when a juvenile is a runaway and consents to nonsecure custody. You can read more about the legal criteria for secure and nonsecure custody in G.S. 7B-1903.

Can an undisciplined juvenile be placed in secure custody?

Yes, but only in very limited circumstances. An undisciplined juvenile may be held in secure custody for no more than 24 hours, unless part of that time falls on a weekend or State holiday. After 24 hours in secure custody, an undisciplined juvenile must be returned to the custody of a parent or guardian, unless the court has issued an order for nonsecure custody. You can read more about the legal criteria for secure and nonsecure custody in G.S. 7B-1903.

Do juveniles have to post bail?

No. Unlike adults who are charged with crimes, juveniles do not have the right to bail. However, if a juvenile is placed in secure or nonsecure custody, the court must hold regular hearings to review the need for continued custody. A juvenile must have an initial hearing within five calendar days, if placed in secure custody, and within seven calendar days, if placed in nonsecure custody. Further hearings on the need for continued secure custody are held at intervals of no more than ten calendar days, unless waived by the juvenile. Further hearings on the need for continued nonsecure custody are held within seven business days of the initial hearing and then every thirty calendar days. At each hearing on the need for continued custody, the State must show by clear and convincing evidence that continued custody is necessary and that no less intrusive alternative is sufficient. Juveniles have the right to be represented by an attorney, and if they are alleged to be delinquent, the court will appoint an attorney for them. Juveniles and their parents also may present evidence, address the court, and examine witnesses.

Appeals and Expunctions

Can the juvenile court’s decision be appealed?

Yes. After the juvenile court judge enters the disposition, the case can be appealed to the North Carolina Court of Appeals. An appeal is not a new trial. The appellate court makes its decisions based on the written juvenile court record, written legal arguments, and sometimes based on oral arguments from attorneys. The juvenile or the juvenile’s parent or guardian must give notice of appeal in open court at the time of the disposition hearing or in writing within 10 days of the disposition being entered. If the juvenile gives notice of appeal, the court will appoint the Office of the Appellate Defender to represent the juvenile in the appeal, unless the juvenile’s parent or guardian retains a private attorney. If the appeal is unsuccessful, the court may order the juvenile’s parent or guardian to reimburse the State for the cost of the appellate defender.

Is an expunction available for juvenile records?

Yes. An expunction is a court process that allows records related to an allegation or adjudication of delinquency or undisciplined behavior to be destroyed or sealed, and allows the juvenile to deny that the charge or adjudication ever occurred. A juvenile’s record is generally confidential, but does not automatically disappear after the end of court involvement or once the juvenile becomes an adult. Also, a juvenile record can result in collateral consequences for the juvenile, which can impact the juvenile’s ability to participate in high school athletics, obtain college financial aid, enroll in the military, get a job, or obtain public housing.

You can read more about the eligibility requirements and process for filing a petition for expunction of juvenile records in G.S. 7B-3200. To request an expunction, you may use forms AOC-J-903, AOC-J-904, and AOC-J-909. There is no filing fee for an expunction of juvenile records.

Additional Resources

Where can I find more information about the juvenile court system?

What legal resources are available to juveniles and families?