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The Juvenile Justice System: Introduction

Criminal defendants who haven't quite reached the age of majority (18 in most states) go through a different criminal justice system than the one most people are familiar with. The idea behind having a separate juvenile justice system for minors who commit crimes is that they're young and have a better chance at straightening out their lives than do adults. There are also concerns about subjecting children to adult punishments, particularly prison.

The following is an introduction to what goes on in the "juvenile justice" system.

Who Goes To Juvenile Court?

The age group covered by the juvenile justice system varies from state to state, but in general most courts follow these general guidelines:

  • Minors under the age of seven generally can't be tried, even in juvenile court. Their parents, however, may be liable.
  • Children between the ages of seven and 15 are prime candidates for juvenile court.
  • Children as young as 12 and as old as 18 are typically taken to juvenile court, but increasingly, prosecutors are trying children in this age group as adults for very serious crimes.

Detaining a Minor

Police officers don't necessarily have to refer a minor suspect to juvenile court. The leeway a police officer is given depends on the state, but in general they can elect to:

  • Detain the minor and warn about the consequences of committing the crime before releasing the minor.
  • Detain and hold the minor until the minor's parents or guardians arrive and then release the minor.
  • Take the minor into custody and refer the minor to a juvenile court officer.

Once a case is referred to juvenile court, a juvenile court officer (often a probation officer) or prosecutor will then make a decision on whether to dismiss the matter, handle the matter "off the record," or file formal charges for the crime.

Handling the Matter "Off the Record"

Even if a juvenile court officer decides not to formally pursue the matter, they may still require the minor to appear before the officer or a judge. The officer or judge has a great deal of discretion in dealing out informal judgments, and will at the very least lecture the minor. Other potential remedies include requiring counseling, paying a fine, repaying the victim, performing community service or putting the minor on probation. Also, if the juvenile court officer believes that the child has been abused or neglected, he or she may initiate proceedings to remove custody of the child from their parents.

Filing Formal Juvenile Charges

If charges are filed against a minor, here is what you can expect:

  • The arraignment: the minor will be formally charged before a juvenile judge.
  • The hearing: the court will either take jurisdiction over the case, or if the juvenile is to be tried as an adult, the judge will set a "fitness hearing" to establish whether this is an appropriate option.
  • Entering a plea: the minor enters a plea and based on that plea, may proceed to trial.
  • Going to trial: juvenile court is substantially different than adult court and a judge, not a jury, will likely be the one hearing the evidence and deciding the guilt or innocence of the defendant.
  • Sentencing: if the judge concludes that the charges are true, then the judge will sentence the minor accordingly.
  • Post-sentencing: often, minors will be required to appear before the court periodically to track progress.

How to Avoid Formal Charges

Juvenile court officers and prosecutors consider a wide variety of factors when deciding whether or not to file formal charges. Here's a list of the most common factors found in the juvenile justice system:

  • The severity of the crime;
  • The minor's attitude;
  • The minor's age;
  • The minor's past record or past problems;
  • The evidence of wrongdoing;
  • Whether the parents seem capable of controlling the minor; and
  • Whether the minor has an attorney.

Unfortunately, other far less "fair" factors may come into play, such as the minor's appearance, gender (boys are more likely to have charges filed), socio-economic status, and ethnicity. Remember, it always pays to be polite, and in this case, contrite. Antagonizing the officials involved is a virtual guarantee that charges will be filed.

Questions About the Juvenile Justice System? Talk to an Attorney Today

While so many of us may have committed a minor crime or infraction and still kept our job or our school enrollment, the American attitude toward small crimes is no longer a small matter. Even a dismissed charge or a diversionary sentence, if found, can destroy a person's chances for a scholarship or a good job. So if you've been arrested or charged with a juvenile offense, your best move is to find a criminal defense attorney near you.

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