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The Juvenile Justice System: Introduction

When a young person breaks the law, we want them to get some punishment for their criminal act. At the same time, we realize that people under 18 years of age aren't adults and may not appreciate the nature of their actions. For these reasons, states have devised a juvenile justice system for defendants who have not reached the age of majority but have criminal charges against them.

The juvenile courts differ from the adult criminal justice system in some significant ways. Juveniles have a separate set of laws for many crimes and have different sentencing guidelines. Minors who commit misdemeanor offenses can correct their behavior rather than face punishment.

Despite occasional public outcries to try serious juvenile offenders as adults, this is the typical process for juvenile court.

Defining a Minor

Under the English common law, courts could not prosecute children under seven. They were innocent in the Biblical sense of the word. As of 2023, 24 states have no minimum age for arresting a juvenile. Maryland became one of the most recent states to implement a minimum age requirement and set it at age 13.

Juveniles between the ages of seven and 15 or 16 are what most people consider children. These defendants need a juvenile court unless they commit a grave crime, such as homicide or sexual assault.

Courts view children of high school age, over 16 or 17, as adults. These children go to the adult justice system unless there are other factors, such as a history of mental health issues or child abuse.

Status Crimes

One unique facet of juvenile court is juvenile crime, or status crime. A status crime is any offense that would be legal if an adult did it but is illegal because of the offender's age. Truancy, possession of alcohol, and curfew violations are all status crimes.

Status crimes are often justified as public safety needs or protecting children from their actions. If improperly handled, they can create an unneeded arrest, and a conviction could result in a criminal record. Almost all states still have truancy and curfew laws on the books, although enforcement is waning.

Arrest and Detention

Just like adults, children have certain rights when detained by police. Often, juveniles are much less likely to know their rights than most adults. Police officers do not have to call parents before they question a child, no matter how young the child is. They do not have to tell the parents the child is in their custody. A juvenile must ask to call a lawyer or their parents.

States may have their own laws about juvenile arrest and detention. For instance, New York does require police to contact the parents before interrogation. In most states, the judge must determine whether the child's statement was voluntary or coerced. Factors taken into account will include:

  • The child's age, education, and intelligence: A very young child is more likely to answer honestly without prompting but also more likely to be afraid to make the police officer angry.
  • The child's emotional status at the time of interrogation: A statement from a child crying and asking for their parents is more indicative of coercion than one from a child who is calm and answering clearly.
  • If the child had any prior experience in the criminal justice system, and if so, how much: Children who are chronic delinquents or who are in the foster care system are sadly familiar with how law enforcement works and can game the system as well as any adult offender.

Pre-Trial Release

A minor does not have to go to juvenile detention once charged. Police and law enforcement agencies have considerable discretion in dealing with young offenders. The decision to press charges is up to the district attorney, but several things can happen before that. During the first encounter with law enforcement officers:

  • Police may release the minor after questioning.
  • If the parents are unavailable or unfit, police may refer the minor to Child Protective Services for possible placement into the foster care system.
  • Police may place the minor in custody and take them to a juvenile facility, such as a juvenile hall.

Once the minor is in custody, a juvenile court officer, often a juvenile probation officer, will evaluate their case to determine what, if any, charges are appropriate.

Some states allow the child to bypass the court altogether and handle the entire case through a process known as diversion. A child who is diverted may agree to perform community service, participate in counseling, or pay restitution, all without even seeing a judge. Diversion is typically offered to juveniles accused of low-level crimes or status offenses who have not previously faced charges in the juvenile court system.

Juvenile Criminal Court, Part 1

In juvenile court, the court officers have options unavailable to judges in the adult criminal system. For many young first-time offenders, juvenile court officers avoid formal criminal charges in favor of restorative justice. Rather than punishment, a judge may craft a sentence that fits the young offender's crime.

For instance, vandals who spray-painted a shop might need to perform community service and repaint the store and others on the block. Other remedies include drug or mental health counseling, repayment for theft or property damage, probation, and house arrest.

These are criminal cases, and the courts take them seriously. However, judges consider factors other than guilt or innocence when deciding these sentences.

  • The seriousness of the crime and the degree of participation
  • The minor's chronological and emotional age
  • The minor's ability to accept responsibility for their action and their attitude towards the proceedings
  • The amount of control the parents have over the minor's actions

Juvenile Criminal Court, Part 2

One of two things can happen if a minor is charged with a serious crime. If the offense is a violent felony, such as homicide, rape, or armed robbery, judges may transfer juveniles to adult court, a process called waiver. Otherwise, the trial proceeds through the juvenile court. The juvenile court process is a less formal process than adult court and may use different terminology in some states and jurisdictions.

  • The initial hearing may be called a status conference, an intake, or a petition. In all these, the judge or hearings officer advises the juvenile of the charges and hears motions for settlement or transfer. If there is a motion for a waiver, the judge sets a date for a transfer hearing.
  • If the juvenile decides to plead not guilty on some or all of the charges, the case goes to trial.
  • The result of a trial is appropriately called an adjudication. What is referred to as a sentencing hearing in adult court is a disposition hearing in juvenile court. A juvenile does not have a jury trial. Instead, the judge reviews the evidence and decides whether or not the defendant is guilty.
  • In most states, children go to a juvenile facility, although some states have a young section in their adult correctional facilities. The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) requires juveniles in adult facilities to reside out of sight and sound of adult inmates.

Exiting the System

In the past, juvenile offenders' records were automatically sealed when they turned 18. This is no longer the case. Court records of severe offenses can follow a juvenile offender even after they complete their sentence or probation, just as they do for adult offenders.

Expungement is easier for juvenile records than for most adult records. Juveniles and their families should speak with an attorney immediately to have the records sealed when the minor has finished their sentence.

As with adult crimes, sexual abuse, some drug crimes, and some domestic violence crimes cannot be deleted. You should speak to a criminal law attorney about expungement in your state.

Talk to an Attorney About the Juvenile Justice System

The courts treat delinquent acts just as seriously as any other crime. If your child is under arrest for any criminal act, you need a criminal defense attorney in your area. A lawyer can help ensure the best outcome for you and your child.

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