The juvenile justice system is separate from the criminal justice system. Read on to learn some basics on crime and punishment for minors.
Each state has special courts—usually called juvenile courts—devoted to handling cases where minors are accused of violating a criminal statute. But, instead of being formally charged with a crime, juvenile offenders are accused of committing a delinquent act.
A juvenile case normally gets started when a prosecutor or probation officer files a petition charging the juvenile with violating a criminal statute and asking that the court determine that the juvenile is delinquent. If proven, the court enters a delinquency adjudication (similar to an adult conviction) and may order a disposition (sentence) aimed at rehabilitating the juvenile.
Often, the juvenile court retains legal authority over the minor for a set period of time—until the juvenile becomes an adult, or sometimes even longer.
To be eligible for juvenile court, a young person must be considered a "juvenile" under state law. In most states, the individual must be 17 or younger to fall under the jurisdiction of the juvenile court. Anyone older than the "juvenile age" will go to adult criminal court.
Along with this upper age limit, some states set lower age limits for juvenile court eligibility. This lower age limit reflects a policy decision that children under a certain age are incapable of determining the difference between right and wrong, or forming a "guilty mind." States with a lower age limit set it anywhere between six and 12 years old. (Children under this age are usually excused from responsibility for acts they commit. Their cases may end up in child protection or dependency court where a judge will evaluate the parents' fitness in raising their child.)
Not all cases heard in juvenile court are delinquency cases (those involving the commission of a crime). There are two other types of cases: dependency cases and status offenses. Different procedures typically apply to all three types of juvenile court cases.
Juvenile delinquency cases. These cases involve minors who have allegedly committed crimes—meaning that if the crime had been committed by an adult, the matter would have been tried in regular criminal court. But the procedures in juvenile court differ significantly from those in adult criminal court.
Juvenile protection or dependency cases. Cases involving minors who are abused or neglected by their parents or guardians are also heard in juvenile court. In a juvenile dependency or protection case, the judge will ultimately decide whether a minor should be removed from a problematic home environment.
Cases involving status offenses. A status offense is a violation that applies only to minors. Examples include truancy (skipping school), curfew violations, running away, and, in some cases, underage drinking.
Over half of all juvenile arrests are made for theft, simple assault, drug abuse, disorderly conduct, and curfew violations, according to the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. In an average year, only around 6-7% of cases heard in juvenile court involved violent offenses such as robbery, rape, murder, and aggravated assault.
When a juvenile is suspected of violating a criminal statute, the procedures are very different from those used in adult criminal court. Most significantly, the police, prosecutors, juvenile court intake officials, and juvenile court judges all have broad discretion to take more informal steps in handling the case. As a result, many young offenders never reach the point of a formal adjudicatory hearing.
Likewise, the constitutional rights of juveniles are different from those of adults who have been accused of committing a crime. For example, although juveniles have the right to an attorney at an adjudicatory hearing, in most states they do not have the right to have their case heard by a jury.
Some juvenile cases are transferred to adult court in a procedure called a "waiver." Typically, juvenile cases that are subject to waiver involve serious offenses, like rape or murder, or juveniles who have been in trouble before. Juveniles have a right to a hearing to determine if their case should be transferred to adult court. Juveniles tried as adults face adult criminal convictions and penalties, such as prison time.
Juvenile courts have a broad range of sentencing options (usually called "disposition orders") if they find that a juvenile is delinquent. Courts can confine the juvenile in a variety of ways—from sending the minor to a traditional juvenile detention facility to placing the juvenile under house arrest. More importantly, juvenile courts can order a whole range of punishments that do not involve confinement—including counseling, curfews, and probation.
To understand how the law in your jurisdiction applies to a specific case, consider consulting an attorney experienced in juvenile law. If, for instance, your child faces an accusation in juvenile court, an experienced lawyer should be able to explain the process and options and, of course, provide representation.