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Juvenile Justice: Juvenile Court


By the end of the juvenile court's first century, it had been largely redesigned in the image of the criminal court. Yet, every jurisdiction in the United States continued to operate some form of juvenile court. The structure of juvenile courts across the country varied considerably. As the juvenile court concept spread across the United States in the early twentieth century, lawmakers invented a variety of structures for the new courts in order to incorporate juvenile court ideals into existing procedures and policies. Even today, the purposes and procedures of juvenile courts vary substantially from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.

Many communities in the United States do not even have actual juvenile courts. Frequently, the court responsible for handling young people accused of law violations is a division of some other court, such as a superior court or a circuit court (Rottman). In Connecticut, for example, the juvenile court is part of the Superior Court, which is a court of general jurisdiction. There are thirteen districts for handling juvenile matters in Connecticut although criminal and civil matters are organized into twenty-two separate geographic areas. In Georgia, the juvenile court is a separate court of limited jurisdiction and every one of Georgia's 159 counties has a juvenile court. Colorado handles delinquency cases in twenty-two district courts, which are courts of general jurisdiction. However, the city of Denver has its own separate juvenile court that is also a court of general jurisdiction. In contrast, Utah's juvenile courts are operated as a single, statewide structure of limited jurisdiction courts, and twenty different branches are divided among eight judicial districts.

In addition to differences in structure and organization, juvenile courts across the United States also vary considerably in their responsibilities and activities. Most states give their juvenile courts legal jurisdiction over cases involving delinquency, abuse and neglect, and status offense proceedings. Some juvenile courts also have jurisdiction over adoptions, terminations of parental rights, interstate compact matters, emancipation, and consent (i.e., to marry, enlist in the armed services, be employed, and so on). Occasionally, juvenile courts may even have jurisdiction over traffic violations and child support matters.

The scope of the juvenile court's responsibility for delinquency cases is generally defined by state law. In most jurisdictions, the juvenile court handles any act committed by a juvenile for which an adult could be prosecuted in criminal court. This would include everything from relatively minor offenses (e.g., loitering, disturbing the peace, and vandalism), to more serious offenses including weapons violations, drug offenses, arson, property offenses (e.g., shoplifting, theft, and burglary), and person offenses (e.g., assault, robbery, and homicide).

Most juvenile courts have responsibility for law violations committed by youth through the age of seventeen, but the upper age of the juvenile court's jurisdiction varies from state to state. In 1999, the upper age of juvenile court jurisdiction was fifteen in Connecticut, New York, and North Carolina, and age sixteen in ten states (Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Texas, and Wisconsin). In the remaining thirty-seven states and the District of Columbia, the upper age of juvenile court jurisdiction was seventeen. In every state, there are exceptions when a youth below the state's upper age of jurisdiction can be placed under the original jurisdiction of the adult criminal court. For example, in most states if a youth of a certain age is charged with an offense from a defined list of "excluded offenses," the case must originate in criminal court.

The formal goals and purposes of the juvenile court can be quite different from state to state. During the 1980s and 1990s, a number of states modified the formal missions of their juvenile court systems to incorporate a greater emphasis on punishment or accountability. In nine states, for example, lawmakers give the juvenile court an explicit mandate to hold young offenders accountable for their law violations by exacting proportionate retribution or punishment (Arkansas, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri, and Rhode Island). Other states emphasize prevention and rehabilitation as the formal goals of their juvenile courts (for example, Kentucky, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Ohio, South Carolina, Vermont, and West Virginia). In most states, the formal mission of the juvenile court is to achieve a combination of youth rehabilitation and public safety.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawJuvenile Justice: Juvenile Court - Origins, Expansion, Retrenchment, Structure, Personnel, Process, Caseload, Juvenile Rights, Continuing Controversies