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Juvenile Justice: Juvenile Court


The official purpose of the juvenile court is to decide whether a youth should be adjudicated (or judged) as a delinquent. Part of this decision is based upon evidence of the youth's unlawful behavior, but the decision also involves an assessment of each youth's individual situation. When a youth is adjudicated delinquent, the juvenile court does not simply impose a sentence Figure 1 commensurate with the severity of the offense. The court determines the best overall response to the entirety of the situation. This response—or disposition—may include elements of punishment and control, but it may also incorporate individual and family services, educational and vocational rehabilitation, and often restitution to the victim or community.

The actual process for handling delinquency cases can vary considerably from community to community. In some jurisdictions, all juvenile arrests are sent directly to the juvenile court where they are reviewed (or screened) by an intake unit within the juvenile court. The court's intake unit may then determine that the matter should be handled informally (or diverted from the official court process). If not diverted, the case matter may be formally charged (or petitioned) and proceed to an adjudication hearing. In other communities, the juvenile court may not be involved in delinquency cases until another agency (e.g., the prosecutor's office or a social service agency) has first screened the case. In other words, the intake function is performed outside the juvenile court. In Baltimore, Maryland, for example, juveniles arrested by the police are first screened by the Maryland Department of Juvenile Justice. The department decides whether to forward the case for prosecution in juvenile court or to refer the youth to some form of noncourt diversion program. In contrast, juveniles arrested in Phoenix, Arizona, go directly to the juvenile court and the juvenile court's intake unit decides whether the case should proceed to adjudication or receive a diversion alternative instead.

Certain processing steps are common to most juvenile justice systems, regardless of terminology, the configuration of the court, or the allocation of service delivery responsibilities. Most juvenile justice systems have some form of intake or initial review of each case. Next there is a pretrial procedure to identify the appropriate charges and the prosecutor (or another agency) decides whether to file a formal petition in the case. Following the charging and petition decisions, the adjudication process begins. If the facts of the case are established, the youth may be formally adjudicated as a delinquent. Finally, a disposition process is used to impose sanctions and services.

Not all cases that merit formal handling are scheduled for adjudication hearings in juvenile court. Instead of filing a formal petition in juvenile court, the intake department (or prosecutor) may decide that a case should be removed from juvenile court and waived to criminal (adult) court. Cases are usually waived to criminal court because they involve serious or violent offenses, or because the youth has a lengthy record of prior offenses. In such cases, a petition is usually filed in juvenile court asking the juvenile court judge to waive jurisdiction over the case. The juvenile court judge then decides whether the case merits criminal prosecution. If a waiver request is denied, the matter is often immediately scheduled for an adjudication hearing in juvenile court.

At an adjudication hearing, the court hears the evidence and testimony pertaining to the case and the judge decides whether the youth should be adjudicated. If the proceeding results in a failure to adjudicate (analogous to an acquittal), the petition might be dismissed and the case could be considered closed at that point. Even if not adjudicated, a case may be continued in contemplation of dismissal. For instance, the court could recommend that a youth do something prior to dismissal of all charges, such as paying restitution or voluntarily attending drug counseling. Such a case would not be considered complete until the youth followed through as instructed and the charges were dismissed.

Cases that result in adjudication (analogous to conviction) are sent forward for a disposition hearing (analogous to sentencing). At the disposition hearing, the court determines the most appropriate package of services and sanctions for each youth. Options often include commitment Figure 2 SOURCE: Melissa Sickmund, "Offenders in Juvenile Court, 1997." Juvenile Justice Bulletin. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 2000. to an institution, placement in a group home or other residential facility, probation (either regular or intensive), referral to an outside agency (for drug treatment, mental health services, etc.), community service, and fines or restitution payments. Ideally, the disposition is designed to protect the public safety as well as address each youth's individual needs and characteristics.

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