How the Criminal Justice System Handles Crimes Involving Juvenile Defendants
When dealing with minors who run afoul of the law, the U.S. justice system takes a significantly different approach than with adult offenders. Because of the perception that juveniles are less fully developed, and therefore more susceptible to redirection and permanent behavior modification, the juvenile justice system emphasizes rehabilitation, skills training, and reintegration into the community at large.
The Potential for Incarceration
As a general rule, juvenile court judges have greater discretion when determining the consequences a minor will face for violating the law. Though it’s typically considered as a last resort, a judge may opt to sentence a juvenile to a period of incarceration.
Juvenile incarceration seldom looks anything like adult incarceration. In most situations that don’t involve serious crimes or repeat offenses, a judge will order the juvenile to be housed in a juvenile detention center, where the youth, along with other minors, will be engaged in programs that include counseling and behavioral instruction. Alternatively, the juvenile court may choose to place the youth under house arrest, either at home, with a relative, or in a foster home. This type of confinement may include the use of a tether that will notify law enforcement officials if the juvenile leaves the premises.
In a case involving a more serious crime, a judge may order the youth to be placed in a secured juvenile detention facility for a term that might exceed a year. At the judge’s discretion, a juvenile can be handed a “blended” sentence—a period of time in a juvenile facility, followed by a transfer to an adult facility when the youth is no longer a minor.
Alternative Sentencing Options for Juveniles
Though there is no consensus, there is a strong belief within the juvenile justice system that youth offenders, and society as a whole, are better served by sanctions other than incarceration. Alternatives focusing on rehabilitation, rather than punishment, include:
- A requirement that the juvenile pay a fine to the court or make restitution to parties injured by their actions
- Completion of a counseling program to identify causes of inappropriate behavior and learn new skills
- Completion of a specified amount of community service
- Participation in a supervised release program with electronic monitoring or regular reporting
More often than not, though, the juvenile court will impose some type and level of probation, which might limit who the juvenile can spend time with, impose curfews, or require the juvenile to participate in educational or treatment programs. While on probation, the youth will be required to meet regularly with a probation officer to confirm that the terms of the probation are being met. If the probation officer sees any evidence of a violation, notice must be filed with the juvenile court. The juvenile court judge will then review the facts and circumstances and decide whether probation should be suspended or revoked.