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Juvenile Justice

Changing Social Attitudes Toward Children, Reformers, Juvenile Courts, Juvenile Crime Statistics, Changes In The System

In the early twenty-first century most people assumed juveniles would be treated differently than adults in the U.S. criminal justice system. This distinction did not come to pass until the end of the nineteenth century. In criminal justice, juveniles are youths who are not old enough to be held fully responsible for their crimes. Juvenile justice is largely a state matter and is separate from the regular adult criminal justice system.

Most states set the age of eighteen as when a person assumes the responsibilities of being an adult in criminal law. Some states send youth as young as seven to juvenile courts. Though there are federal juvenile laws for persons under age eighteen, for youths accused of committing federal crimes, this is a very minor part of criminal law.

Juvenile courts have jurisdiction over children in three basic kinds of situations: (1) when they are accused of conduct that would be a crime by an adult; (2) when parents or guardians abuse or neglect them or when they are in need; and, (3) when they violate rules that apply only to juveniles, called status offenses. Status offenses include unapproved absence Officers arresting a juvenile delinquent. Until the nineteenth century, the public considered children to be young adults and fully responsible for their own actions. (© Bettmann/Corbis) from schools (truancy), running away, alcohol and tobacco use, or refusing to obey parents. Juveniles who commit acts considered adult crimes are referred to as delinquents.

Juvenile courts also perform duties such as determining paternity and child support, or custody in divorce cases (where a child lives and how often he or she visits the other parent). In adoption cases, the court grants parental rights to foster parents or guardians.

Juvenile court procedures are less formal than those in adult criminal courts. For status offenders and delinquents, rather than punish the offenders, juvenile courts seek to rehabilitate, supervise, or provide counseling. Treatment of juveniles is usually more lenient than for adults. The purpose is to protect youth and guide them to more productive lives while still holding them accountable to some degree for their actions.

Delinquency proceedings

Though juvenile justice procedures vary among the states, they do share certain basic features. For juveniles accused of criminal acts or status offenses, police often issue reprimands or notify parents instead of taking offenders into custody. If juveniles are taken into custody, they have a right to telephone their parents and an attorney. Juveniles in custody are usually separated from adults but some occasionally find themselves among adult defendants. Almost half of the states require a juvenile's school receive some form of notification.

Within hours of an arrest, a juvenile will be interviewed by an intake worker, a person trained to work with youthful offenders, such as a probation officer. Most jurisdictions have a detention center, which is used for intake interviews and houses juveniles awaiting hearings or serving short sentences. The worker also interviews the parents and the victim or person who filed the complaint.

After the hearing, the juvenile is usually released to a parent or guardian. The intake worker then decides whether the case should be dismissed, go to court for a hearing, or be handled An attorney meets with her young client. Juveniles and their parents have a right to hear any pending charges and to have an attorney. The court will appoint an attorney if the juvenile's family cannot afford one. (© Shelley Gazin/Corbis) informally with a warning to the offender or referring the family to a social worker. Many cases are dismissed or settled informally. If the intake worker decides the case should proceed, then the information is forwarded to a prosecutor. Parents are advised of the right to legal representation, if the prosecutor proceeds by petitioning (formally requesting) a hearing before the court to began prosecution.

Juveniles and their parents have a right to hear any pending charges and to have an attorney. The court will appoint an attorney if the juvenile's family cannot afford one. Youthful offenders cannot be made to testify against themselves and prosecutors must prove their guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, just like in adult criminal cases.

Like adult criminal court, a prosecutor presents evidence before a judge, the offender responds to the evidence and is able to question witnesses. Unlike adult cases, however, juveniles cannot have jury trials and their records are sealed (kept private) in most states. In addition, juvenile court proceedings are held in rooms separate from adult courtrooms.

If juvenile offenders are found delinquent, they face another hearing with a probation officer who prepares a more detailed report on the youth's background. The officer may require alcohol and drug tests, check for learning disabilities, and explore mental health needs. The report is shared with the juvenile and his or her lawyer before the sentencing hearing is held. During the hearing, the victim or a victim's family can talk about how the offender's crime has affected them.

Treatment of delinquent youths

Juvenile court judges have many sentencing choices, such as probation, issuing fines, sending offenders to juvenile correctional institutions or foster homes, referrals to day treatment or social skills classes, mental health programs, or community service. A combination of treatments is often ordered by the judge. These can include probation, community service, fines, or medical treatment. Repeat offenders can be declared juvenile delinquents and removed from their homes and placed in foster care or a state facility.

The harshest treatment a judge may order is commitment to a secure reform facility. In other words, the juvenile is locked into the facility for the duration of his or her sentence. These facilities are often called youth development centers. Though rehabilitation is the goal of juvenile justice, these centers resemble prisons and serve to protect the community from the juvenile.

The length of time juveniles serve in secure facilities can vary. Since offenders are only sentenced to confinement for more serious crimes, they often remain there until they reach eighteen years of age. Most states, however, allow juvenile courts to keep jurisdiction over the offenders beyond eighteen. Some states, like New Hampshire, place juvenile offenders in adult prisons if they commit a violent crime and are at least sixteen years of age.

First-time youth offenders cleaning the streets of New York instead of doing jail time. Juvenile court judges have many sentencing choices, such as probation, issuing fines, sending offenders to juvenile correctional institutions, and community service, among others. (© Marc Asnin/Corbis)

Most youth offenders receive a sentence of probation. Probation means a juvenile is released back into the community under the supervision of a youth services officer. The juvenile has to meet certain conditions such as completing school with a good record and not using drugs or alcohol. If the juvenile does not fulfill these conditions, the judge can order him or her to be confined in a development center.

By the early twenty-first century the privacy of juvenile records was no longer assured. About half of U.S. states do not allow records of serious or violent offenses to be sealed or destroyed. Some thirty states grant access to sealed records under certain circumstances, as spelled out in state laws. Nine states allowed the release of juvenile court records without any restrictions, while thirteen permitted or required delinquency hearings be open to the public.

Juveniles in adult criminal court

Thousands of youths are transferred to adult courts every year. In the most serious cases, juveniles can be reassigned immediately, and in some states the move is automatic for certain offenses. Assigning juveniles to adult courts has always been controversial. As a result, state laws differ as to what offenses deserve to be transferred and how it should be handled. In 1997 forty-six states allowed reassignment. These offenses increased during the "get tough" period of the 1980s and 1990s.

In most states, cases involving murder, rape, aggravated assault, and armed robbery are transferable. Other offenses include drug violations, running away from juvenile facilities, stalking, and various sex offenses. Juveniles have the right to appeal court decisions to adult courts. In federal courts a juvenile can be sent to an adult criminal court for violating federal firearms laws or selling illegal drugs.

The process requires a prosecutor to request a transfer from juvenile to adult court and to show the juvenile is the one who committed the crime. The prosecutor may also say the juvenile is not likely to be helped by treatment and is a danger to the community. According to the 1966 Supreme Court ruling in Kent v. U.S., juveniles have the right to be present at the transfer request with an attorney.

Juvenile offenders can provide evidence at transfer hearings and cross-examine witnesses to prevent moving to adult court. The decision often depends on the crime and the offender's prior offenses. If the decision is made to transfer the case, the prosecutor notifies the adult court in another hearing.

Juveniles tried in adult courts are considered first offenders and generally receive lighter sentences. The transfer of a juvenile to adult courts, however, can have serious consequences. The juvenile could be sentenced to life in prison or even execution. In 1988 the Supreme Court ruled that no juvenile younger than sixteen years of age at the time of the crime could be executed by a state.

The lawyers for a high-school shooting suspect try to prevent the boy from being tried as an adult. The transfer of a juvenile to adult courts can have serious consequences. The juvenile could be sentenced to life in prison or even execution. (AP/Wide World Photos)

As emphasis shifted from rehabilitation to crime control, most states passed laws in the 1980s and 1990s making it easier to send juveniles to adult courts. As a result, the number of cases transferred between 1988 and 1994 increased by 73 percent before declining in the late 1990s. Another consequence was that the number of juveniles in prison doubled between 1985 and 1998.

Cases of abuse or neglect

Besides handling cases of delinquency and status offenses, juvenile justice systems also deal with cases involving abuse, neglect, custody, adoption, paternity (identification of the biological father), and parental rights in general. Where abuse or neglect is a concern, a state agency or private citizen may petition a juvenile court to take action.

In cases of suspected physical or emotional abuse, the judge will assign a guardian or trained volunteer to serve as an advocate for the juvenile in court and in dealing with other services. This person may also prepare a report on the youth's living conditions to help the judge make a decision. The judge will usually place the juvenile in foster care or a state home, and keep certain people from having contact with the juvenile.

Removal of a juvenile from home may also occur when the court determines the parents do not have enough money to raise the child. In such cases, the parents have the right to be heard in court and the juvenile may also testify. Many times the judge will refer the juvenile or parents for counseling.

For More Information


Clement, Mary. The Juvenile Justice System. 3rd ed. Woburn, MA: Butterworth Heinemann, 2002.

Mones, Paul. When a Child Kills. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991.

Platt, Anthony. The Child Savers: The Invention of Delinquency. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1969.

Whitehead, J. T., and S. P. Lab. Juvenile Justice: An Introduction. 3rd ed. Cincinnati, OH: Anderson, 1999.

Web Sites

National Center for Juvenile Justice. http://www.ncjj.org (accessed on August 20, 2004).

National Center for Mental Health and Juvenile Justice. http://www.ncmhjj.com (accessed on August 20, 2004).

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal Law