Recently the North Carolina Court of Appeals ruled in In re D.E.P., __ N.C. App. __ (Feb. 7, 2017) that district court judges need not make findings on each of the factors in N.C.G.S. 7B-2501(c) to withstand plain error on appeal. Professor LaToya Powell’s thorough post on how this decision seemingly overturned prior rulings can be found here, but our discussion will focus on describing 7B-2501(c) and providing context as to why this statute is critical to delinquency court process.
7B-2501(c) can be found under Article 25, titled “Dispositions” in the Juvenile Code. One of the distinguishing features about the juvenile process versus adult criminal court is the care taken in crafting individual responses to delinquent conduct. In criminal court, the process is “offense based”: what is the seriousness of the offense, and what is the prior record of the offender. These two simple inquiries form the basis for determining if the adult offender receives a community, intermediate, or active sentence.
Juvenile justice is founded on the idea that each child before the court is an individual, whose case outcome should be considered with care and particularity. Note that juveniles don’t receive “sentences”:
The purpose of dispositions in juvenile actions is to design an appropriate plan to meet the needs of the juvenile and to achieve the objectives of the State in exercising jurisdiction, including the protection of the public, NCGS 7B-2500.
This “appropriate plan” is defined in 7B-2501. The court shall select a disposition per the standard set out in 7B-2500 based upon five specific factors:
(1) The seriousness of the offense
(2) The need to hold the juvenile accountable
(3) The importance of protecting public safety
(4) The degree of culpability indicated by the circumstances of the particular case and
(5) The rehabilitative and treatment needs of the juvenile indicated by a risk and needs assessment
It appears that the General Assembly wanted these considerations mandatory, using the language “shall select.” Notice the balancing presented here. The first three factors emphasize the offense, similar to adult criminal court. But the fourth and fifth factors are key to what’s special about juvenile dispositions. While “degree of culpability” can also be applied to adult offenders, it takes on new meaning when the juvenile court is addressing young persons in the fit of adolescent development. Factor five serves to truly consider the individual before the court; what does this person need in terms of rehabilitation and treatment? How can the court find the core concerns for this young person and impact them in a positive way?
These are just a few reasons why 7B-2501(c) should be followed strictly. This is the opportunity for juvenile defenders to present their client in the brightest light by emphasizing strengths and potential. And don’t settle for the same disposition presented for the juvenile that appeared before your client, and the juvenile before that, etc. Make sure the court sees your client as a person, not a vessel for a list of responsibilities. I hope that the district courts follow best practice and consider all of these factors before pronouncing a judgment which could have an indelible impact on the youth before them.