3 minute read

Juvenile Courts

Types Of Cases Handled In Juvenile Court

Delinquency cases involve a child entering the juvenile court system because of criminal charges such as robbery, murder, assault, or other felonies. Since the late 1960s, youths charged with delinquency have the right to counsel, notice of charges, and protection against self-incrimination as well as the right to appeal the court's decision. A hearing determines whether the child will be released or held until a trial date. If the involved parties fail to work out a plea arrangement, the case goes to trial. A trial in juvenile court is called an adjudication hearing but is similar in proceedings to a trial in adult court. The prosecuting attorney must prove the charges, otherwise the youth is acquitted and goes free.

When a youth is convicted, a dispositional hearing is scheduled which is similar to a sentencing in adult court. Rather than punishment of the juvenile offender, the disposition focuses on rehabilitation and the needs of the child. Juvenile court judges have a wide range of alternatives available in determining the best course of action to take with the child. The most common action is probation, but the child can be incarcerated in a juvenile detention center, sent to "boot" camp or special training schools, or the case may be dismissed by the court. The evaluations of psychologists and social workers are crucial in these decisions as is input from lawyers and counselors.

While offenders in delinquency cases have many rights, these rights are often missing for status offenders. Status offenses are cases involving a juvenile charged with an act that would not be criminal if committed by an adult. Status offenses are sometimes termed "pre-delinquency" cases meaning the juvenile is on the road to repeatedly breaking the law and being labeled a "juvenile delinquent." Running away, truancy from school, malevolence or aggressive behavior are examples of status offenses. Proceedings for status offenders do not involve proof beyond a reasonable doubt, a requirement in most other court proceedings, nor does the offender have a right to counsel or protection against self-incrimination. Cases are often diverted from the court system into a social program such as educational or training classes, foster care, family counseling programs, or community-based involvement directed by a social worker.

Children may also enter the juvenile court system not as respondents to the court, but as victims to be protected by the court under parens patriae or "the state as parent." In abuse and neglect proceedings, the court files a petition against the parent or adult caregiver of the child. Abuse involves cruelty, mental and/or physical, toward the child or inappropriate physical or sexual contact. Neglect involves the failure to care for, or provide the basic needs of, the child or to protect them from abuse by others.

The adult defendant has the right to an attorney. Depending on the jurisdiction of the juvenile court, the child may have no counsel, may have counsel appointed for the child, or the court may appoint an "interim" guardian or other representative to act in the best interest of the child.

Unlike adult courts, all juvenile court sessions are closed to the public and all files are sealed. Often, the children's initials are used in court records and paperwork instead of full names to protect their identity from the public and the press. A major criticism of the juvenile court system is related to this issue of privacy. When juveniles are transferred to adult courts for trial, their files and past history of delinquency remain protected under the provisions of the juvenile justice system. Some states make this information available to the judge only during arraignment or pre-trial hearings when the future of the case is determined.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationGreat American Court CasesJuvenile Courts - A System In Place For Children, Types Of Cases Handled In Juvenile Court, Development Of Juvenile Courts