In the juvenile justice system, penalties tend to toward rehabilitation, rather than punishment. In most instances, juveniles will be treated less harshly, even if their crime is one for which an adult would be penalized. Some juvenile offenses, though, are merely status offenses, which would not be crimes if committed by adults.
The Juvenile Court Process
In most instances, when a minor violates the law, the matter will be resolved in a special court known as a juvenile court. As a general rule, proceedings in juvenile courts are civil, not criminal. Accordingly, a juvenile will typically not be charged with a crime, but may be determined to be delinquent. If the juvenile court rules the minor to be delinquent, the minor becomes subject to the power of the court, and the court has a wide range of options to do what it considers to be in the best interests of the juvenile. Typically, the juvenile court will order some type of confinement, curfew, counseling and/or probation.
The Different Types of Juvenile Cases
Juvenile offenses are generally categorized as:
Delinquency offenses—For violations that would be tried in a criminal court if committed by an adult, a juvenile may face a number of potential sanctions. 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. If that happens, a prosecutor or juvenile court officer will become involved, making the decision whether to resolve the matter informally or with formal charges. Such a determination is usually based on a variety of factors, including:
- Nature of the offense
- Any past record
- Social history
- Perception that parents will be able to control the child’s behavior
The other type of juvenile offense is what is known as a “status offense,” an act that would not be a violation by an adult, but is only a violation because of the juvenile’s age. Examples would be curfew violations, truancy, possession of alcohol or tobacco, and running away from home.
The modern trend has been to “deinstitutionalize” status offenses, so that juveniles don’t face detention or incarceration, which can often be a breeding ground for more serious criminal behavior.