An Overview of the American Juvenile Justice System

How Do Juvenile Courts Treat Minors Differently? What Are the Different Types of Juvenile Cases?

Juvenile JusticeOne of the overarching purposes of the American criminal justice system is to protect citizens and ensure public safety. At the same time, in order to keep the power of the government in check, our Constitution guarantees all persons charged with crimes certain fundamental rights. Though there is some belief in and sentiment for rehabilitation, our system focuses more on accountability, at least when the perpetrator is an adult.

With juvenile offenders, though, there’s a strong perception that their emotional and intellectual growth is incomplete and that a youthful offender may therefore benefit from less punitive sanctions. Accordingly, the juvenile justice system typically offers more latitude in sentencing or disposition, often focusing on education, training, and behavioral modification.

The Juvenile Court System

In every state, there are separate juvenile courts with authority, responsibility, and jurisdiction over violations involving juvenile offenders. As a general rule, a juvenile is not charged with a crime but instead faces prosecution for an act of delinquency. In some circumstances, though, where the crime is egregious or severe, the prosecution may ask the court to allow the minor to be tried as an adult.

In the adult criminal justice system, a prosecutor must file charges with the court to initiate legal action. However, in the juvenile court system, either a prosecutor or a probation officer may file a petition (typically in civil court), asking the judge to decide whether the minor has been delinquent. If the judge determines that the minor was delinquent, the juvenile court then has the power to determine the disposition of the case.

What Is a Juvenile?

Under the laws of every state, a person who reaches the age of 18 is no longer considered a juvenile and does not have access to juvenile court. Some states, though, deny access to the juvenile courts to minors who reach the age of 17, and two states—North Carolina and New York—require that persons aged 16 and older be prosecuted in the adult criminal justice system.

Every state also imposes a minimum age requirement for prosecution in juvenile court. As a general rule, children under the age of 7 are deemed to lack the capacity to understand guilt and innocence or form the necessary criminal intent. Depending on the circumstances, when children under the age of 7 commit criminal acts or acts of delinquency, a court may attribute responsibility to parents and declare them unfit, placing the children in foster care.

What Types of Cases Are Heard in Juvenile Court?

Generally, there are three different kinds of legal issues that get resolved in juvenile court:

  • Dependency problems—These are situations where the child may or may not have engaged in any wrongdoing, but the facts and circumstances indicate neglect or abuse by parents or other members of the household. The role of the juvenile court in these cases is to establish whether it is in the best interests of the minor child to be removed from the home. Typically, the court appoints a “guardian ad litem,” an adult charged by the court to advocate for the child in legal proceedings.
  • Delinquency issues—A delinquent act is one committed by a juvenile that would be a crime if it were committed by an adult. When a juvenile has committed a deliquent act, the officer dealing with the juvenile may choose to issue a warning, or may simply hold the juvenile until a parent arrives. The officer also has the authority to take the juvenile into custody and refer the case to juvenile court.
  • Status offenses—Some offenses are illegal only when committed by persons under a certain age. Common status offenses include underage drinking/minors in possession, truancy, running away from home, and curfew violations.

What Does Sentencing Look Like in Juvenile Cases?

As a general rule, incarceration of any sort is viewed as a last resort, typically when all other measures are unsuccessful. However, if a minor commits violent or destructive crimes, the court may impose a period of detention, often combined with counseling and other instruction during the period of confinement. The juvenile court may also order a minor to be placed under house arrest, either at home or in foster care.

The preference in cases involving juvenile delinquency is to impose measures that can potentially change behavior. Among the alternatives often used are:

  • A requirement that the juvenile perform a certain number of hours of community service
  • Targeted counseling or educational programs, such as substance abuse or anger management
  • Involvement in a supervised release program to allow regular monitoring in a controlled environment
  • Payment of fines or restitution

For more information on Juvenile Court Procedures and Sentencing, see our page on that topic.

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