How Do Juvenile Proceedings Differ From Adult Criminal Proceedings?

Children who commit crimes have a complicated status in the legal world. Since they're children with less understanding of the laws, they deserve special protections. But since they're still underage and considered minors, they don't have all the constitutional rights that adults have. Many of the juvenile courts' procedures attempt to balance these two concerns. They also aim to rehabilitate juvenile delinquents.


Who Is a Juvenile?

Most states consider a juvenile a person between the ages of 10 and 17. Some states set the maximum juvenile age at 16. Anyone over a state's given age limit may be tried as an adult. There is also a minimum age at which a child can be tried in adult court. This age varies depending on your jurisdiction. It may be 16 or as young as 13. Sometimes, older juveniles who commit serious crimes or violent crimes are tried as adults, even though they would normally be considered juveniles.


The first way that juvenile proceedings differ from adult proceedings concerns the terms that courts use for juvenile offenders versus adult offenders. First, juveniles commit "delinquent acts" instead of "crimes." Second, juvenile offenders have "adjudication hearings" instead of "trials." In adult court, people facing criminal charges are referred to as “defendants." The terms used in juvenile cases versus adult court highlight the punitive nature of the criminal justice system in comparison to the rehabilitative approach of the juvenile justice system.

Juvenile's Rights and Protections in Juvenile Proceedings

Juveniles don't have all the same constitutional rights in juvenile proceedings as adults do. For example, juveniles' adjudication hearings are heard by juvenile court judges. Youthful offenders don't have the right to a trial by jury of their peers. They also may not have the right to bail or to a public trial, depending on state law.

But juveniles do have extra protections in the juvenile court system that they would be unlikely to receive in adult criminal court. Courts seal juvenile records so that their juvenile offenses don't haunt them for their entire lives. Once the juvenile turns 18, their juvenile records are usually expunged (erased). This only happens if the juvenile has met certain conditions. But some states may distinguish between a juvenile's misdemeanor charges versus felonies. Be sure to check your state's laws concerning what types of charges are sealed or expunged.

Juveniles have rights to notice of their delinquent acts before the adjudication hearing. They also have the right to prerelease if their delinquent acts aren't violent. They also have the right to an attorney. If they can't afford one on their own, they have the right to a free public defender.

Juvenile Court Rulings or Dispositions

Once the case is adjudicated, the judge decides the case's "disposition"—in other words, whether the juvenile is guilty or not and what the sentence should be. Judges must follow certain guidelines when sentencing. They must act in the best interest of the child. Unlike one of the goals in a typical adult criminal case, punishment isn't the purpose of a juvenile sentence. Instead, the primary goal is to rehabilitate the juvenile so they can go on to live a productive adult life. The judge's interventions may include counseling, community service, probation, or placement in a juvenile facility.

Need Legal Advice About Juvenile Proceedings? Talk to a Criminal Law Defense Lawyer

If you or someone you know is a minor facing delinquency court proceedings or trial as an adult, they likely will need legal representation. Having a defense attorney experienced in juvenile court cases in your corner is critical. With greater possibilities for rehabilitation and the clearing of a record, an experienced criminal defense attorney can't only protect the rights of a minor but also help set them up for a more successful adult life.

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