Juvenile Court System in the United States

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Juveniles, or minors, accused of committing crimes are treated significantly differently than their adult counterparts.  In order to cope with younger offenders, each state has specific procedures for handling cases of juvenile offenders.  In theory, juvenile courts seeks to rehabilitate and deter youthful offenders from criminal activity, and in turn, a wide variety of guidelines, programs, and sentences are handed down to juvenile offenders, which vary state by state.  As a guideline, children under the age of fourteen cannot be charged with a crime unless the prosecutor can prove than mens rea, or guilty intent, was formed in the child’s mind.  Typically, children under a certain age, typically ten to twelve, are not viable candidates for the juvenile justice system and are dealt with via their parents or guardians. 

Rights of Juveniles Accused of Crimes

Juveniles accused of crimes that have been referred to the juvenile justice system follow a similar procedure, regardless of their jurisdiction.  Once a case is referred by law enforcement to the juvenile justice department, a prosecutor or juvenile intake officer will decide:

  • To dismiss the charges against a juvenile
  • To handle the juvenile case informally
  • To petition the case, or file formal charges

Formally filing charges places a case on the schedule of the juvenile courts to be heard later.  Following this, either a minor will be arraigned and charged as a minor or the case will be turned over to the adult court system.  If kept in the juvenile justice system, a judge will likely retain jurisdiction over the case, however, community programs and other juvenile counseling and outreach programs are attended by the youthful offender as a judge withholds judgment on their case. Additionally, informal arrangements to pay restitution, meet certain school requirements, and receive certain psychiatric help all may be required by a juvenile judge. 

More recently, juveniles have been afforded more legal rights similar to those enjoyed by their adult counterparts.  For example, law enforcement cannot search or detain juveniles without probable cause, however, a probation officer, school official, or parent may legally do so.  Juvenile offenders are not bailed out per se, but are often released to the care of their parents, or if not to their parents, must wait to appear before a juvenile court judge, which is known as preadjudiciation detention. 

Juvenile Rights to Counsel

Juveniles do have a right to counsel, and if they cannot afford it, they must be provided counsel.  Additionally, minors are typically afforded the right to call for legal representation, which may be either obtained via their parents or directly speaking with a public defender.  The right to counsel is for the individual minor and not their family.  Therefore, virtually all minors are eligible for court-appointed counsel.  Additionally, the attorney-client privilege applies to communications between a minor and their attorney, but typically, parents are involved in the decision making process.

  • Other constitutionally protected rights of minors that the courts have upheld include:
  • Fifth amendment rights preventing self-incrimination
  • Rights to confront and cross-examine witnesses
  • Right to notice of the charges
  • In a small number of states, juveniles are afforded the opportunity to a trial by jury

Trying a Minor as an Adult

More often than not, punishments meted out by the adult court system are more serious.  Therefore, any sentencing will be served in an adult incarceration facility.  However, minors charged as adults will receive the same legal rights as an adult would.  Minors can be changed as adults, if:

  • In the judge’s opinion, the minor is not going to benefit from juvenile rehabilitation
  • Depending on the state, an individual age 13 to 16 may automatically be eligible for adult court
  • State automatic transfer laws mandate the minor is older enough and has committed an offense that must be tried in adult court

Typically, most individuals will seek to be tried as a minor, which gives them much more of an opportunity to avoid hard time, but also, potentially seal and expunge their records later.

Juvenile Criminal Case Sentencing

Sentencing and punishments for juveniles found responsible for crimes tends to prove rather lenient, even in light of major damages.  Typically, the least punishment a juvenile can face will be a verbal warning.  Elevating punishments may include paying restitution, mandatory counseling, electronic monitoring, or community service punishments.  If warranted, juveniles found committing a crime might be confined per the order of a judge.  The levels of confine vary according to the severity of the crime, however, some common methods of confining offending juveniles, include:

  • House arrest
  • Placement in juvenile hall or juvenile detention centers
  • Shock probation, which involves incarceration and boot camp-like environments and discipline
  • Placement in a secured facility, ranging from minimum to maximum security
  • Placement in an adult jail or prison among the adult general population

Juvenile Records after Reaching Adulthood

A juvenile court record records all the interactions the juvenile court system has had with an individual, including their juvenile arrest record.  Sealing, or expunging, these records upon becoming an adult is beneficial for individuals, who may otherwise suffer detrimentally from having a criminal record.  Juveniles typically must formally request that their records be sealed via a petition to the juvenile court clerk.  Eligibility for record sealing is done a case-by-case basis, however, the age of eighteen, unless otherwise noted, is typically the appropriate time.


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