Juvenile Delinquency: What Happens in a Juvenile Case?

Here's how the juvenile justice system usually treats a youth offender case.

By , Attorney Northwestern University School of Law
Updated by Rebecca Pirius, Attorney Mitchell Hamline School of Law
Updated 7/27/2022

When a juvenile is suspected of committing a crime, the procedures that follow are very different from those used for adult offenders in a typical criminal case. Even the terms are different. While adults go through criminal court, juveniles go through juvenile court or delinquency court. This article will review the process of juvenile cases from arrest and charging to trial and sentencing.

What Happens in a Juvenile Delinquency Case?

All states have created a special juvenile court system for minors (usually those 17 and younger) who get into trouble with the law. And although some minors are ultimately judged to be delinquent by these juvenile courts, the different players in a typical juvenile case—including police officers, prosecutors, and judges—have broad discretion to fashion other outcomes. Although the procedure for juvenile delinquency cases varies from state to state, the following is a rundown of a typical juvenile case.

What Happens When Police Arrest a Juvenile?

A minor might come into contact with law enforcement in a number of ways when there's an alleged violation of a criminal statute. Some minors are arrested by police, while others are referred to the police by parents or school officials. Regardless of how the police get wind of a potential juvenile case, a police officer may decide to deal with the juvenile in several ways.

Issue a Warning: Counsel and Release

The police officer can detain the minor, issue a warning, and then let the minor go. This option is often referred to as "counsel and release." In some cases, the officer might detain the minor until a parent arrives and then release the minor to the custody of a parent or guardian.

Arrest or Detain the Juvenile

If the circumstances warrant, the officer may arrest a juvenile and bring them to the police station. An officer might go this route if the suspected offense is very serious, the juvenile is older or a repeat offender, or the juvenile is acting out and uncooperative.

The officer may decide to hold the juvenile until a parent arrives, place the juvenile in protective custody (like child services), or put the juvenile in secure detention or lock-up. Federal law requires that juveniles be held in facilities separate from adult offenders, if possible.

If the officer questions the juvenile, they must give the juvenile a Miranda warning.

What Happens After Arrest? Referral to Juvenile Court

After arrest or detention, an officer may refer the case to juvenile court. Generally, at this point, a prosecutor or juvenile court intake officer (often a probation officer) takes over. That person may decide to dismiss the case, handle the matter informally, or file formal charges—a juvenile delinquency petition.

Prosecutor or Juvenile Intake Officer

In deciding how to proceed, the prosecutor or intake officer will typically consider:

  • the severity of the offense
  • the juvenile's age
  • the juvenile's past record
  • the strength of the evidence in the case
  • the juvenile's social history, and
  • the ability of the minor's parents to control his or her behavior.

In an average year, about 20% of the cases referred to a juvenile court intake officer are dismissed and another 25% or so are handled informally. The remaining cases go through formal proceedings.

Informal Disposition

If the prosecutor or probation officer decides to proceed with the juvenile's case informally, usually the minor must appear before a probation officer or judge. Although no formal charge is entered against the juvenile, they will usually be required to do one or more of the following:

If the prosecutor or officer suspects parental abuse or neglect of the juvenile, they may initiate proceedings to remove the minor from parental or guardian custody. This proceeding generally goes through a separate court that handles children in need of protection.

Formal Proceedings: Petitioning the Case

If the prosecutor or probation officer decides to proceed formally, they will file a delinquency petition in juvenile court. The minor will go before a juvenile court judge for arraignment to be informed of the charges. The court will also determine whether the minor should be detained or released for the time period before the initial hearing. In about 80% of cases processed formally in juvenile court, the judge allows a minor to remain at home while awaiting the hearing.

What Happens in Juvenile Delinquency Court?

If the minor's case remains in juvenile court, generally, one of three things may happen: the case gets pled, diverted, or adjudicated.

Minor Enters Into a Plea Agreement

The prosecutor and defense attorney for the minor might work out a plea agreement. Often, a plea agreement hinges on the juvenile's compliance with certain conditions. For example, as part of a plea deal, a juvenile may need to attend counseling, obey curfews, or reimburse the victim for damages.

Judge Diverts the Case

When a judge diverts a case, the judge retains jurisdiction over the case while the juvenile undergoes a recommended program (such as counseling) or performs some act (such as community service or payment of restitution). If the juvenile doesn't fulfill these obligations, the court may reinstate formal charges.

Adjudicatory Hearing: Juvenile Trial

If the case goes to trial—called an "adjudicatory hearing" in a juvenile case—both sides present evidence and the attorneys argue the case (much like a criminal trial). In most states, the hearing is before a judge, not a jury. At the conclusion of the hearing, the judge will determine whether the juvenile is delinquent (guilty). This determination is referred to as an adjudication of delinquency and is similar to an adult criminal conviction.

If a delinquency ruling is made, a probation officer will evaluate the juvenile, order psychological examination or diagnostic tests, if necessary, and make recommendations at the disposition hearing (which is similar to a sentencing hearing in adult criminal court).

What Happens at Juvenile Sentencing? Disposition and Punishment

In ordering a disposition (sentence), the judge must decide what punishment is in the best interest of the juvenile. Juvenile courts focus primarily on rehabilitating minors and less on punishing them (although that's part of it too).

The judge may order any number of things as part of the disposition, including:

  • counseling or treatment
  • payment of fines and restitution (to the victim)
  • driver's license suspension
  • juvenile probation, or
  • confinement in a juvenile detention facility.

The judge may also order the juvenile to appear in court periodically (called post-disposition hearings) so that the judge can monitor the juvenile's behavior and progress. Depending on a state's laws, the juvenile court may have jurisdiction over the juvenile until they turn 18 or another age stated in the law (such as 19, 21, or 25, for example).

How Long Do Juvenile Crimes Stay on Your Record?

Like an adult conviction, a juvenile delinquency adjudication results in a record. Unlike adult convictions, some juvenile records are confidential and not available to the public (but exceptions exist). But even if the public can't see a record, police, prosecutors, and judges can. These records can impact future juvenile or criminal proceedings. For instance, a judge may be able to consider prior juvenile adjudications as part of someone's criminal history when pronouncing a later adult sentence.

While you might want to forget about dumb things you did as a teenager, the criminal justice system tends to remember. For those juvenile adjudications that are public, they could impact your ability to get into college, the military, or another program. Most states allow expungement of juvenile records. A person with a juvenile record should definitely consider looking into expunging their record.

Talk to a Lawyer

The juvenile delinquency process can be confusing and scary. And the consequences can be more serious than one might think. A judge can also impose orders against the parents. Talk to a criminal defense attorney who has experience in juvenile delinquency cases. Your lawyer can help guide you and your child through the justice system and protect your child's rights.

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