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Juvenile Justice: Background

The juvenile court system is a part of the criminal justice system. It's designed to address the specific circumstances of youthful offenders. When children commit crimes, whether it's misdemeanor shoplifting or a more violent crime like assault, the cases are typically heard in juvenile court.

Here, the emphasis is on counseling and rehabilitation versus jail time. Young people still have a lot of time to mature and become functioning members of society. The common belief is that adult prisons are not the appropriate place for them to do so.

This article provides background information about the juvenile system, including:

  • How different jurisdictions define "juvenile"
  • How juvenile court proceedings work
  • How some juvenile crimes get transferred to adult court
  • Disposition options for juvenile offenders
  • Juvenile status offenses and expunging a juvenile record

Legal Definition of 'Juvenile'

In the eyes of the law, a minor is any person under the legal adult age or "age of majority." In most states, the age of the majority is 18. But the age at which the juvenile court has jurisdiction over delinquency cases (criminal cases involving youthful offenders) varies according to state laws.

A juvenile delinquent is a child under 18 who commits an offense that would be a crime if committed by an adult.

For most states, the upper age of jurisdiction is 17. This means when a child turns 18, the court loses jurisdiction. So, if they commit new offenses, they'll face charges as an adult. In several states, such as Wisconsin, a juvenile delinquent is 16 or younger.

Juvenile jurisdictions also often have lower age limits because very young children are less capable of knowing right from wrong. Most states specify that juveniles lack mens rea or criminal intent before age 6 or 7. In North Carolina, prosecutors can charge a child as young as 8, depending on the crime.

In some states, the offender's age at the time of arrest determines whether they get tried as a juvenile. But typically, their age at the time of the offense determines jurisdiction. This allows for the sometimes lengthy periods needed to investigate a case.

Juvenile Court Hearing Proceedings

A person's status as a juvenile is important. That's because juvenile criminal proceedings differ from the adult criminal justice system. For instance, juveniles do not have the right to a jury trial. Instead, they'll have a hearing before a judge deciding whether the prosecution has proven its case. This is often called adjudication. This hearing determines whether the juvenile committed the crime beyond a reasonable doubt.

Criminal prosecution isn't the only power juvenile courts have. In rare situations, the courts also have the power to emancipate a juvenile in a civil proceeding. Here, they're granted certain adult privileges and become adults under the law. For example, if a 17-year-old loses both parents and has no other living relatives, the court could emancipate them to pursue custody of their siblings.

Trying Juveniles as Adults

If a juvenile commits a serious crime, such as murder, the court may try them as an adult despite their age. Many criticize relying solely on age as a determinant for adulthood because people develop at different rates. Some teens are far more mature at 17 or 18 than others are as adults. Others argue the punishment options available in the juvenile system are inadequate for serious offenses. There are also cases where a child has exhausted the available intervention methods.

For serious offenses, a waiver can result in a transfer of the juvenile's case to adult criminal court. Factors considered in a waiver include:

  • The seriousness of the crime
  • The juvenile's alleged culpability
  • The juvenile's criminal record and age

For example, a juvenile, 16 years of age, with prior adjudicated offenses such as felony assault or battery, who gets charged with murder is more likely to have their case transferred to adult court. The reasons will likely include the youth's age and the seriousness of the criminal offense.

Sentencing Options for Juvenile Offenders

After adjudication, a disposition hearing determines the best consequence for the juvenile offender. The disposition hearing is like the criminal sentencing hearing adults face. The judge weighs state requirements for punishment against evidence of the child's amenability to rehabilitation, treatment needs, and ability to reintegrate into the community.

The judge can decide on various courses of action, including:

  • Treatment programs (mental health screenings or rehabilitation for substance use)
  • Probation (a probation officer will provide supervision, such as conducting random drug testing)
  • Community service (unpaid time to restore the community, such as repainting a vandalized wall)
  • Placement in a juvenile detention facility (short-term confinement in a residential facility) or juvenile correctional facility (long-term confinement in a residential facility)

A judge will likely place a juvenile in out-of-home placement only for serious crimes or repeat offenses. These residential facilities can either be secure or non-secure detention centers. They confine juvenile delinquents who pose a risk to themselves or public safety and are likely to commit more criminal acts. If the child gets probation, they may stay supervised until their 18th or 21st birthday, depending on state law.

Juvenile Status Offenses and Expunging a Juvenile Record

status offense is a violation that's illegal for an underage person but is otherwise not criminal for adults. In some states, juveniles picked up by law enforcement for these status offenses will get a referral to social services. Common examples of status offenses include the following:

  • Truancy (violating school attendance policies)
  • Curfew violations (violating local ordinances against minors in public areas after certain hours)
  • Underage drinking (minors under 21 possessing or consuming alcohol)

Having a criminal record can have other consequences for the offender. For example, an arrest record for assault may cause potential employers to disregard your application. Even in cases where a charge gets dismissed, the arrest record alone is potentially damaging. So, the juvenile court seals and usually keeps court records confidential to protect minors. One unique protection afforded to juvenile delinquency cases is the potential for expungement. This is a removal of arrest or court records from the criminal system.

Each state has laws and requirements for offenses eligible for expungement. In Maryland, for example, the checklist for expungement includes whether you have any pending charges. Or whether you received an adjudication for a crime involving a firearm or violence, such as sexual assault, among other factors.

Have Questions About a Juvenile Arrest? Contact a Criminal Law Attorney

The juvenile justice system operates differently to protect children and guide them to make better choices as they age. But, regardless of whether a case is in adult or juvenile court, hiring a lawyer makes a difference in the outcome. Contact a local criminal defense attorney if your child faces criminal charges. Contact your local court to ask about expungement options.

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