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Juvenile Law

Modern Juvenile Law

The basic framework created by the first juvenile court act is largely intact. Rehabilitation, not punishment, remains the aim of the juvenile justice system, and juvenile courts still retain jurisdiction over a wide range of juveniles. The most notable difference between the original model and current juvenile law is that juveniles now have more procedural rights in court. These rights include the right to an attorney and the right to be free from SELF-INCRIMINATION.

All states now maintain a juvenile code, or set of laws relating specifically to juveniles. The state codes regulate a variety of concerns, including the acts and circumstances that bring juveniles within the jurisdiction of the juvenile court, the procedures for juvenile courts, the rights of juveniles, and the range of judicial responses to misconduct or to the need for services.


The juvenile justice system seeks to rehabilitate children, rather than punish them for their juvenile criminal behavior. Since the late 1970s, critics of the juvenile courts have sought to abolish this system, arguing that it has failed in its rehabilitation efforts and in not punishing serious criminal behavior by young people. At the same time, defenders of the juvenile justice system contend that for the vast majority of children, the system is a worthwhile means of addressing problems. They maintain that a handful of violent juveniles who have committed serious crimes should not lead the public to believe that the system does not provide ways of changing behavior.

Critics note that the social and cultural landscape has changed considerably since the early 1900s when the juvenile justice system was established. Drugs, GANGS, and the availability of guns have led to juveniles committing many serious crimes, including murder. Critics insist that juvenile courts are no longer adequate to address problems caused by violent, amoral young people.

Some argue that the perceived leniency of the juvenile justice system compounds its failure to rehabilitate by communicating to young people that they can avoid serious consequences for their criminal actions. The system engenders a revolving-door process that sends the message that young offenders are not accountable for their behavior. It is not until these repeat offenders land in adult criminal courts that they face real punishment for the first time. Thus, it may be better to punish a juvenile in the first instance, in order to deter future criminal activity.

Critics also claim it is wrong for juvenile offenders who have committed violent crimes to be released from the jurisdiction of the juvenile court at age eighteen or twenty-one. Serving a few years in a juvenile correction facility for a crime that if committed by an adult would result in a ten-year sentence is unjust. The punishment for a crime, argue critics, should be the same, regardless of the age of the perpetrator.

Because of these deficiencies, critics contend, the system should be dismantled. Juveniles should be given full DUE PROCESS rights, including the right to trial by jury, just like adults. Freed from the juvenile justice system's rehabilitative ideology and restrictions on criminal due process rights, juveniles should stand accountable for their criminal actions. Once a juvenile is convicted, a trial court can determine the appropriate sentence.

Defenders of juvenile justice respond that a small minority of violent youths have created the misperception that the system is a failure. Though not every child can be rehabilitated, it is unwise to abandon the effort. In every other sphere of society, children are treated differently from adults. For the few juveniles who commit serious crimes and have poor prospects for rehabilitation, current laws provide that they be transferred to adult criminal courts. Allowing this alternative is a wiser course, defenders insist, than dismantling the system.

Defenders also contend that many of the alleged defects of the juvenile courts can be traced to inadequate funding and to the environment in which many juveniles are forced to live. They point out that violent subcultures and early childhood traumas caused by abuse, neglect, and exposure to violence make it more difficult to address individual problems. If the system were adequately funded, PROBATION officers and court support personnel could more closely supervise children and rehabilitation efforts. If more energy were put into changing the socioeconomic situation of communities, rehabilitation efforts would improve and crime would decrease.

According to system supporters, placing juveniles in prison will not end the cycle of criminal behavior. The opposite result is more likely, for a teenager may feel stigmatized by a criminal conviction and may believe he is a lost cause, resulting in a return to crime. In addition, the huge amounts expended on incarceration could be better spent on counseling, education, and job training.

Defenders of the juvenile justice system argue that a criminal conviction can engender difficulties in obtaining employment and in negotiating other aspects of life. It is wrong, they contend, to label a person so early in life, for an action that may have been impulsive or motivated by peer pressure. Preserving the juvenile justice system allows many teenagers to learn from their mistakes without prejudicing their adulthood.

Finally, defenders note that many states have changed their laws to deal more severely with violent juvenile offenders. As long as there are ways of diverting these offenders into the adult system, defenders insist, the current juvenile justice system should be maintained.


Rosenheim, Margaret K., et al., eds. 2002. A Century of Juvenile Justice. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

Whitehead, John T. and Steven P. Lab. 1999. Juvenile Justice: An Introduction. Cincinnati, Ohio: Anderson.

Juvenile law is largely a matter of state law. On the federal level, Congress maintains in the U.S. Code a chapter on juvenile delinquency (18 U.S.C.A. §§ 5031 et seq.). The federal juvenile laws are similar to the state juvenile laws, but they deal solely with persons under the age of 18 who are accused of committing a federal crime, a relatively minor part of the juvenile justice system.

Juvenile courts exist in all states. They may be held in a building or room separate from adult courtrooms. The proceedings are private, and the identity of the juveniles and the records of the proceedings are also private.

Many juveniles come to juvenile court after being arrested by the police for a criminal act. Juveniles accused of crimes may be confined in a secure facility prior to the disposition of their case. Although they should be separated from adults prior to trial, many juveniles accused of crimes find themselves in adult jail populations.

Juveniles charged with a crime do not have the right to a jury trial in juvenile court. All juvenile cases are heard by a juvenile court judge. At trial a prosecutor representing the state presents evidence against the juvenile, and the juvenile has an opportunity to respond to the evidence. The juvenile has the right to receive notice of the charges against him or her, to confront and question witnesses, to be free from self-incrimination, and to be represented by an attorney. If the juvenile cannot afford an attorney, the juvenile court will appoint one, at no cost. The juvenile may not be adjudged delinquent unless the prosecution has proved its case BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT. This is the same high standard of proof required in adult criminal trials.

The harshest disposition of a juvenile case is commitment to a secure reformatory for rehabilitation. A secure reformatory is usually called a youth development center or something similar suggesting rehabilitation. Secure reformatories resemble adult prisons in that the inmates are locked inside. The professed goal of reformatories is rehabilitation, but the unspoken goal is often confinement of the juvenile for the protection of the community.

Not all findings of delinquency result in commitment to a secure facility. Juvenile courts usually have the discretion to order any combination of PROBATION, community service, medical treatment, fines, and restitution. Probation releases the juvenile into the community under the supervision of a youth services officer. As a part of probation, juveniles often must fulfill certain conditions identified by the juvenile court and the youth services officer. These conditions can range from attending school and

meeting certain performance requirements, to abstaining from drugs or alcohol. If the juvenile does not fulfill the conditions or commits another offense, she or he may be committed to a secure facility.

For repeated status offenses, a juvenile may be removed from home and placed in a state-approved foster home or some other state facility. Such facilities are usually not secure. However, juveniles ordered to such facilities are required to remain there for the period specified by the juvenile court judge. If they do not, they may be committed to a secure facility.

Juveniles do not have the right to a court-appointed attorney unless they face commitment to a secure facility that is operated by the state or federal government.

Status offenses do not always result in an appearance before juvenile court. Police officers often take intermediate measures before detaining a juvenile and beginning the petition process. These measures range from a simple reprimand to notification of the juvenile's parents. If a juvenile continues to commit status offenses after being excused by the police, he may be detained and eventually declared delinquent.

Abused and neglected juveniles usually come to the attention of juvenile courts through the petitions of state agencies or concerned private parties. In some cases the juvenile may be suffering physical or emotional abuse. In other cases the juvenile may be petitioned because he has committed a number of status offenses or petty offenses. A petition by the state usually seeks to remove the juvenile from the home for placement in foster care or a state facility.

When the state seeks to remove a juvenile from the home, the parents must receive an opportunity to be heard by the juvenile court. The juvenile is also allowed to testify, as are other witnesses. In addition to removing the juvenile from the home, the juvenile court may order that certain parties refrain from contacting the juvenile.

Children in need of services may also be petitioned by third parties. In some cases the juvenile court may simply order counseling for the child or the child's parents. If the parents are financially incapable of supporting the child, the court will usually remove the child from the home until such time as they are financially able to raise the child.

Juveniles have the right to appeal juvenile court decisions to adult courts. The number of available appeals varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction and can change within a jurisdiction. For example, before 1996 in New Hampshire, juveniles could appeal to the New Hampshire Superior Court and then to the New Hampshire Supreme Court. In 1996 the state legislature changed the law to allow only one appeal by a juvenile, to the state supreme court (N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 169-B:29).

The period of time spent in a secure reformatory can vary. In most cases a juvenile committed to a reformatory must remain there until reaching the age of 18. However, most states allow juvenile courts to retain jurisdiction over certain juveniles past the age of 18 at the request of a prosecutor or state agency representative. These holdovers are usually juveniles who have been adjudicated delinquent for a violent crime or have been adjudicated delinquent several times in separate proceedings.

Some states also allow a juvenile court to order incarceration in adult prison for juveniles who are found to be delinquent past a certain age. In New Hampshire, for example, a juvenile found to be delinquent based on a petition filed after the juvenile's sixteenth birthday may be sent to prison. If prison time is ordered, it cannot extend beyond the maximum term allowed for adults or beyond the juvenile's eighteenth birthday (N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 169-B:19).

Some juveniles may be waived, or transferred, into adult court. In this procedure the juvenile court relinquishes its jurisdiction over the juvenile. Waiver is usually reserved for juveniles over a certain age (varying from 13 to 15) who are accused of violent or other serious crimes. On the federal level, for example, a juvenile accused of committing a violent crime that is a felony may be tried in adult federal court. Waiver in federal court is also authorized for a juvenile accused of violating federal firearms laws or laws prohibiting the sale of controlled substances (18 U.S.C.A. § 5032 [2000]).

The decision of whether to relinquish jurisdiction is usually made by the juvenile court. However, most jurisdictions have statutes that automatically exclude from juvenile court juveniles charged with violent or other serious crimes. In such cases an adult court prosecutor is required to certify to the adult court that the juvenile should, by law, appear in adult court. This certification takes places in a hearing before the adult trial court. Juveniles have the right to an attorney at this hearing and the right to present any evidence that militates against transfer.

Waiver into adult court has serious consequences for juveniles. In adult court juveniles face nearly all the punishments that may be inflicted on adults, including long-term imprisonment, life in prison, and in some cases death. However, in 1988 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that no state may execute a juvenile who was under the age of 16 at the time of the crime (Thompson v. Oklahoma, 487 U.S. 815, 108 S. Ct. 2687, 101 L. Ed. 2d 702 [1988]).

The treatment of juveniles who have committed SEX OFFENSES has stirred a national debate. Each state has passed a law referred to generally as Megan's Law, which requires convicted sex offenders to register with local police and allows communities to be notified that the offender resides in the area. A growing number of states now require juvenile sex offenders to register with law enforcement officers.

Statistics suggest that the number of sex offenses committed by juvenile offenders is on the rise. However, the question of whether these offenders should register with local law enforcement upon their release from juvenile detention facilities remains a highly controversial issue. Those individuals who oppose required registration for juvenile sex offenders argue that such registration undermines the very principals behind juvenile justice in the United States. These individuals assert that requiring juvenile sex offenders to register necessarily circumvents any attempts they make to live a normal life. As such, they contend that the registration requirement thereby negates the possibility that the juvenile sex offender could ever become rehabilitated.

In contrast, other individuals argue that the trend of increasingly violent crimes being committed by juveniles warrants children accused of a crime being treated the same as adults. That is, proponents of extending the registration requirement to juvenile sex offenders argue that the importance of public safety, proper punishment, and individual accountability mandate that these individuals continue to be held responsible for their actions. In addition, some argue that sex offenders, juvenile or otherwise, are untreatable because various well known studies demonstrate a very high RECIDIVISM rate, indicating that individuals who have a propensity to commit such crimes are often not amenable to any type of rehabilitation. States such as Oklahoma and Texas have enacted bills extending their versions of Megan's laws to juvenile sex offenders.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationFree Legal Encyclopedia: Jokes to Robert Marion La FolletteJuvenile Law - History, Trying Juveniles As Adults, Modern Juvenile Law, Should The Juvenile Justice System Be Abolished?