When someone under 18 appears in juvenile court, the process unfolds in a somewhat different manner than in the adult court system. The juvenile court system runs parallel with the adult system but has some important differences. Although a juvenile can be tried as an adult in some serious cases, the courts prefer to try juveniles in their own courts and house incarcerated juveniles in their own facilities.
Juvenile offenders are not always arrested for violations of criminal law. Unlike the adult criminal justice system, where offenders have broken laws in the penal codes, other sources may refer juvenile offenders to the juvenile court system. These include schools, parents, and the community. Juvenile court procedure acknowledges that minors have issues leading to delinquent behavior and attempts to correct them.
The juvenile justice system begins with the initial arrest or intake.
Juvenile Court Chronology
Each state, and sometimes each county, has its own juvenile court process. Procedures and terminology are different in each location. However, this outline gives a general look at what happens in juvenile courts across America.
Arrest and Intake
As of 2023, some 24 states have no minimum age for arrest. These jurisdictions have arrested minors as young as five or six years of age. The remaining states have minimum ages ranging from seven to 13. Currently, the only federal law in place is the 2005 Supreme Court ruling prohibiting the death penalty for anyone who committed a homicide while under the age of 18. (Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551).
Minors are also arrested for status crimes. A status offense is an act that is illegal because of the participant's age. Truancy, possession of alcohol, and curfew violations are all status crimes. If police apprehend a minor for a statutory violation or a status crime, the juvenile case begins.
Law enforcement has considerable discretion when dealing with juvenile offenders. For a first-time offense, a police officer can arrest the minor or issue a notice to appear at the court at a later date. If police must transport the minor, federal law requires police to transport them to a juvenile detention facility or to house them away from adult arrestees.
Calling the Parents
Law enforcement officers are not required to call parents unless the minor asks them to. Depending on the nature of the arrest, a law enforcement officer may discuss the case with the juvenile before calling the parents. The court must decide later if this violated the juvenile's rights.
If the situation warrants it, the intake officer may refer the child to social services, foster care, or a mental health facility before arraignment. This can occur if the court case involves the parents, such as allegations of neglect, child abuse, or domestic violence.
Even after contacting the parents, the child may still be held until the next hearing. If returning the child to their home is unsafe, law enforcement must take charge of their care. If the juvenile is accused of a crime, they could be placed in juvenile detention. If the child is accused of a status offense or a crime for which detention would not be appropriate, but the child cannot return home, social services may place the child in foster care or with a family member.
Pretrial Diversion and Hearings
The intake officer and district attorney have the discretion to remove the juvenile from the court system through a process of diversion. Also known as restorative justice or rehabilitation, the juvenile court judge receives a report from the intake officer and/or the child's attorney requesting a diversion program. The judge, officers, and attorneys craft a probationary program that matches the offense better than jail or prison time.
Roughly half the juvenile cases nationwide go through diversion. Diversion may include:
- Drug and mental health treatment
- Repayment and restitution plans
- Community service
- Counseling and family therapy
If the juvenile completes the diversion program, their juvenile record is sealed with no further action. Most states do not offer diversion for repeat offenders and those charged with serious or violent felonies.
Before any trial, the judge may dismiss the case for lack of evidence or on a motion from the minor's attorney. The district attorney or judge may also hold:
- A detention hearing to determine if the minor is a flight risk and cannot remain in their parents' home
- A transfer hearing is required if the district attorney believes the criminal case belongs in adult criminal court. This occurs in serious offenses such as homicide or rape and if the juvenile is over a certain age in some states.
Adjudication and Disposition
The adjudication hearing is similar to a trial in an adult court. A juvenile does not have a jury trial. Instead, the judge hears all evidence and rules on the child's guilt or innocence. The child can have an attorney and present evidence in their defense.
The prosecution must still prove all allegations beyond a reasonable doubt. As in adult court, the majority of juvenile cases never go to adjudication. Instead, the juvenile and their attorney reach a plea bargain with the district attorney.
At the adjudicatory hearing, the judge rules on the evidence. If the juvenile is guilty, they are adjudicated delinquent. The next step is the disposition hearing. Similar to a sentencing hearing in an adult trial, the judge imposes the sentence.
- According to the Anne E. Casey Foundation (AECF), the majority of juveniles adjudicated guilty are placed on probation. Sixty-three percent of all tried cases in 2018 (139,000 cases) went to probation, along with another 123,000 cases from diversions and informal referrals. Juvenile probation departments can be effective at reducing juvenile delinquency and recidivism among youthful offenders.
- About 28% of adjudicated delinquents go to residential detention centers. These are not correctional facilities. They are half measures between the child's home and juvenile prison, and according to AECF and other watchdogs, they are less effective than either.
- The remaining juveniles are sentenced to institutional facilities. Some states have juvenile prison facilities, and some have designated sections of adult correctional facilities.
Juvenile offenders must receive post-sentencing rehabilitation after they complete their sentence, whatever it may be. Juvenile law reform specifies that young offenders must have the support they need to return to their communities. Like other juvenile law matters, aftercare depends on the effectiveness of the court order and the state system.
Understanding the Juvenile Court Process
Getting a matter resolved in juvenile court is similar to adult court, but there are important differences. If you need help understanding the process, contact a criminal defense attorney in your area. Having a consultation with an attorney who knows your state and county laws, to help you through the process is invaluable.