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:
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.
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:
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.
When youthful offenders are declared delinquent in juvenile court, penalties often emphasize rehabilitation, restorative justice, and deterrence. These penalties may include:
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.
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:
Juveniles charged in adult courts face the same conditions and procedures as adult defendants.
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.