NC bill takes aim at prosecution of 6-year-olds

Children as young as 6 can be prosecuted in North Carolina juvenile court — the lowest age set by law in the country — but a bipartisan effort would raise the minimum age of delinquency to 10 and move the state out of its status at the bottom.

More than 2,100 complaints were filed against nearly 1,150 youth under 10 during the three fiscal years from 2016 to 2019, according to the North Carolina Department of Public Safety, with Black children disproportionately accused of wrongdoing. The data shows 211 children ages 6 to 9 appeared before a judge, including 54 ultimately found responsible for the complaints.

While state prison officials say no child under 10 was put behind bars during that period, attorneys, racial justice advocates and lawmakers worry that a court appearance itself can create lasting harm.

"The likelihood of them lacking legal capacity is so high and the potential for real identity development damage is also really high," said Barbara Fedders, director of the Youth Justice Clinic at the University of North Carolina School of Law. "It just feels like we are doing them all a disservice if we can’t find a better way to deal with these issues than prosecution."

In 2014, Fedders’ clinic represented a 6-year-old boy in the Raleigh area who threw a rock at a vacant apartment window. Scared and away from his mother, the child, who is Black, confessed to a police officer at the scene. The property owner wanted money for the broken window, so over the next few months, the boy and his mother went to court twice, causing him to miss school. The clinic got the case dismissed by arguing that children under 7 are incapable of forming criminal intention.

State Rep. Marcia Morey, a Durham County Democrat and former judge, remembers kids in her courtroom sitting at an oversized desk in swivel chairs — some of the youngest with feet dangling — drawing in coloring books and crying. Most alarming to her was a case she dismissed around 2010 involving a 7-year-old, an 8-year-old and an 11-year-old throwing dice against a building in a public housing complex.

"I was just dumbstruck. They brought these kids into court for throwing dice," Morey said.

Lawmakers set 6 as North Carolina’s minimum age of delinquency jurisdiction in 1979 during a period when tough-on-crime legislation was common and some viewed the juvenile justice system as an avenue for getting kids and their parents the resources they needed.

Twenty-eight states and Washington, D.C., have no age specification, according to a March report from the North Carolina Department of Public Safety. Connecticut, Maryland and New York set the minimum age at 7, while Massachusetts and California have the highest thresholds for juveniles at 12 years old. Twelve states allow 10-year-olds to be prosecuted in juvenile court, three states have a minimum age of 8 and one state sets its minimum at 11 years old.

About 600 juvenile court counselors are tasked with deciding how a complaint should proceed.

Most complaints come from school settings, and more than 43% were dismissed from the outset. Nearly two in five complaints were diverted to other agencies, though one-tenth of referrals ultimately got resolved in court because a child or parent didn't meet their obligations, such as mandatory counseling. In about one-sixth of cases, a court counselor sent a complaint straight to a judge.

Law enforcement officers can temporarily hold a child for up to 12 hours, though the state doesn't track how often this happens. In the past five years, one 9 year-old and two 8 year-olds were admitted to Juvenile Crisis and Assessment Centers after their cases were adjudicated in court. The centers are short-term, unsecured residential settings.

There’s insufficient data to determine whether states with minimum age laws are likelier to see higher prosecution rates among youngsters than states without such specifications. Amy Borror, justice systems analyst for the National Juvenile Defender Center, said one commonality across the country is racial disparities where Black boys are often overrepresented in the juvenile justice system.

North Carolina Department of Public Safety figures show Black kids age 6 to 9, for example, were disproportionately accused of wrongdoing, representing 47% of complaints but just 24% of the population. White kids in that age group represent 53% of the population but 39% of complaints.

Dawn Blagrove, executive director of Emancipate NC, a racial justice advocacy group, said Black children under 10 who misbehave are likelier to be viewed as a threat despite the fact that they commit crimes at similar levels as white kids.

North Carolina lawmakers warn that the bill to raise the age of delinquency may not cross the finish line this year. Sen. Danny Britt's proposal is in limbo as intense budget negotiations take greater priority. Still up for debate is whether parents should continue to face the risk of being held in contempt of juvenile court.

Bill author Britt, a Robeson County Republican, and some law enforcement members believe the threat of fines and prison time keeps parents invested throughout the process, though only four parents were held in contempt between fiscal years 2016 and 2019. One mother spent two days in jail, according to DPS.

Blagrove supports Britt's bill but said it does not go far enough in rooting out systemic racism.

"What we are seeing is Republicans finding the easiest, the most innocuous, the least impactful ways to create change to a system that needs massive overhaul without actually disrupting the system," Blagrove said.

Britt noted that Democrats failed to take action on the issue despite controlling the General Assembly for years before Republicans gained power in 2010.

In the meantime, lawmakers and activists on both sides of the aisle are finding common ground: dissatisfaction with North Carolina remaining dead last in something.