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What is Juvenile Crime?

All kids make mistakes and break rules from time to time; it’s a natural part of childhood learning and their mental, emotional, and moral development. But sometimes, those infractions exceed normal boundary-testing and cross the line into seriously disruptive, dangerous, or illegal behaviors. When they do, youth may be arrested and charged with a crime or delinquency.

Juvenile offenders may be charged with most any crime an adult offender could be charged with, from minor property crimes like petty theft to serious violent crimes like murder. Some actions, called status offenses, are only considered illegal because of the person’s age, like truancy or curfew violations, so those criminal charges are specific to minors.

Some of the most common juvenile criminal offenses include:

  • Minor thefts, such as shoplifting
  • Vandalism, such as tagging
  • Criminal mischief, such as egging houses
  • Moving violations, such as speeding
  • Underage possession or consumption of age-restricted products, such as cigarettes and alcohol
  • Simple assault and battery, such as participating in a schoolyard fight

Usually, children and teens aren’t charged and prosecuted the same way adult criminals are. The federal Juvenile Justice and Prevention Act sets a baseline for juvenile law practices and states are able to make certain customizations to their own procedures and laws.

Each state determines an “age of majority,” a cutoff age for considering a person a juvenile or an adult offender. Most jurisdictions set their age of majority at 18, but in other states it may be younger. Juvenile offenders are tried in a different type of court and face different penalties.

How Does the Juvenile Court System Work?

Juvenile offenders are generally granted more leniency, rights, and protections under the law than adult offenders charged with the same crimes.

This is to account for the cognitive differences between kids and adults. Children often have:

  • A more limited ability to fully understand the consequences of their actions
  • Less control of their circumstances and access to resources
  • A lesser capacity for regulating their emotions and impulse control

The juvenile justice system expects children to have greater potential for rehabilitation than adults, if they’re given the proper support and treatment.

Though law enforcement officers are allowed to speak with suspected juvenile delinquents without their parents’ presence or permission, a person under their state’s age of majority can request to have their parents or guardians with them during police questioning.

If the state decides to prosecute through the juvenile court process, the youth can usually go home with their parents to await their adjudicatory hearing or trial. Depending on the circumstances of the crime or the conditions of the minor’s home life, the court may place a juvenile into temporary custody at a juvenile detention facility until their hearing.

Juvenile court proceedings are heard in special courts that usually prohibit or limit public access to the trials. These cases are more likely to go before a judge than a jury and include several stages. The language used in juvenile court hearings tends to differ; at the initial arraignment, a youthful offender can either “admit” or “deny” the charges against them, rather than pleading “guilty” or “not guilty” like an adult offender would, for example.

If the child defendant is convicted, or to use the alternate language, the charges are declared “proven” instead of “not proven,” they’re scheduled for a disposition hearing where a judge will determine their sentence from a broad range of punishments.

In many jurisdictions, juvenile criminal records aren’t made public and become automatically expunged or erased from the court record when the offender reaches the age of majority. In other case, the offender will need to petition the court to have their records expunged. Expungements can offer juvenile offenders a sort of clean state when they enter adulthood so that their record remains hidden from things like employment background checks.

What Punishments are Given to Juvenile Offenders?

When youthful offenders are declared delinquent in juvenile court, penalties often emphasize rehabilitation, restorative justice, and deterrence. These penalties may include:

  • Warnings. For lesser crimes, especially when committed by a first-time offender, a juvenile court judge can issue a penalty as simple as a verbal warning.
  • Community Service. In court-ordered community service, the judge determines how many hours the child needs to serve and may mandate what kind of work the child needs to complete. Sometimes the child can choose their assignments out of a list of approved community service options, like working for a local non-profit or participating in community clean up projects.
  • Probation. The most common penalty in juvenile court, youthful offenders sentenced to probation are required to periodically check in with a probation officer and may have additional conditions like curfews, community service, and mandated participation in treatment programs or counseling. Probation sentences may last for a set period of time, or they can be indefinite and subject to the offender’s progress.
  • Confinement. Typically reserved for the most serious juvenile offenses, minors may serve time in juvenile correctional facilities. These centers are very similar to adult prison but with a youthful population. Juveniles in correction centers are required to participate in schooling programs.

Some states try certain delinquent children and teens as adults in a general court, then sentence them to adult jails. Incarcerated minors may go to solitary confinement to separate them from the adult inmates.

Depending on the circumstances, an offender can receive a blended sentence wherein which they go to a juvenile correctional facility until they reach the age of majority and then transfer to an adult jail to serve the remainder of their time.

States make their own guidelines on maximum prison sentences for juvenile delinquents, with some limiting detention time to a set number of years and other states allowing sentences as harsh as life without the possibility of parole.

When are Juveniles Charged as Adults?

The set age of majority creates an age limit for when an offender is automatically considered an adult, but it doesn’t always guarantee a child below that age will be charged as a juvenile; courts can choose to charge some minors as adults. Many states require a minimum age to charge a youth as an adult, typically ranging from ages 14 to 16, but in some places it’s as young as 12.

Minors are more likely to be charged as adults for:

  • Committing violent crimes like homicide, sexual assault, or particularly brutal assaults and batteries
  • Having a long criminal record
  • Being close to the age of majority
  • Previously receiving rehabilitative treatments through the juvenile courts

Juveniles charged in adult courts face the same conditions and procedures as adult defendants.

Do I Need a Juvenile Criminal Defense Attorney?

The consequences of a juvenile court conviction could follow a child for the rest of their life. And because juvenile court processes are less public, defendants may be less informed about how to prepare for hearings or know their unique rights as minors.

Working with a juvenile defense attorney could help a youthful defendant get better outcomes for their trial. Defense lawyers can assist with navigating the juvenile court system, preparing a defense, getting charges dismissed, negotiating to lower charges, securing leaner punishments, and providing their juvenile clients with support and rehabilitation resources.

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