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Juvenile Delinquency

Our criminal justice system does not treat children the same as adults, and for good reason. Minors are more prone to peer pressure from those around them. Their brains are not fully developed intellectually or emotionally, making them less able to fully appreciate the consequences of their actions. Young people may also have a greater chance for reform and should receive that opportunity.

That is why the United States has a separate juvenile justice system, which handles court matters involving minors. However, it comes with many problems of its own. The legal definition of a juvenile delinquent, or a "juvie," is a person who violates the law before reaching the age of majority, which would have been a crime if committed by an adult. The age of a minor for juvenile delinquency depends on the state, but it typically is someone younger than 17 or 18 years old. Because most "juvie" cases are based on state law, it is best to consult with a juvenile criminal lawyer if you or your child is in trouble.

Common Types of Delinquency Problems

Juvenile crimes could involve any type of criminal activity, from minor infractions to felony crimes. According to the National Center for Juvenile Justice, some of the most common delinquency offenses include:

Penalties and Treatment for Juvenile Delinquents

The penalties for juvenile delinquency violations depend on the underlying offense and the child's age. Older juveniles may be tried as adults for serious crimes, facing the same penalties as if the crime was committed by an adult. When sentencing children, a juvenile court judge may have various sentencing options, including sentencing in a juvenile facility, regular jail, or home confinement. Other penalties may include:

  • Fines
  • Curfew or probation
  • Community service
  • Substance abuse treatment/rehab
  • Counseling programs

Juvenile Detention

Detention is often a default for serious offenses. But, it may not be the best option for rehabilitation or to help a child avoid offending again. Some juveniles are even sent to adult prisons.

Children in detention may be at greater risk for abuse, sexual assault, and mental health problems. Extended detention can reduce the chances of successful recovery, gaining employment, or getting an education. If your child is facing the possibility of juvenile detention, you should work with an attorney who has experience representing juvenile defendants.

Several risk factors increase the chances a minor will end up entangled in the juvenile justice system, including:

  • Substance abuse
  • Cognitive disabilities
  • Low socioeconomic status or poverty
  • Abusive family members or broken homes
  • Gang membership
  • Poor school performance
  • Living in high-crime neighborhoods

Juvenile Delinquency Prevention

Early intervention may provide the greatest opportunity for helping a juvenile avoid continued legal troubles. Prevention options include early education intervention, diversion programs, and getting treatment for substance abuse and behavioral disorders.

Community Programs

Even though the issue is usually up to states, the federal government passed the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974 (JJDP) and established the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP). This program supports states to make their own community-based treatment programs. For example, in North Carolina, the Department of Public Safety funds state, county, and local partnerships in all 100 counties and offers services such as family therapy and group homes.

Clearing Your Juvenile Record

A criminal record can hurt someone's ability to move on after past run-ins with the law. A one-time mistake could follow someone for the rest of their lives, making it more difficult to get a job, get scholarships or public benefits, or find housing.

Who can see your "juvie record"? In most states, juvenile records are confidential. However, in Arizona, Hawaii, South Carolina, and South Dakota, juvenile records are public. Other states will allow public access to your record based on the crime. For example, California law enforcement can release the names of juvenile delinquents accused of "serious" or violent crimes, and will not allow for the destruction of that record if committed above a certain age (14). Even in states where your record is private, certain people may have access to your case file including parents, school officials, child protective agencies, government attorneys, and the police.

If you have a juvenile record that you would like to move on from, it may be possible to get that record sealed or expunged to improve your future opportunities. When your criminal record is sealed, it will no longer be available for public searches, including most background checks. Courts and government agencies may still have access to sealed records. When your record is expunged, the records are destroyed.

Some states automatically seal or expunge records for juveniles. For example, in Montana, juvenile court records are destroyed on a child's 18th birthday. In Illinois, records are automatically expunged if 2 years have passed since the case was closed and the juvenile has no other cases. Other states may wait for several years after the juvenile becomes an adult. For example, Florida does not automatically expunge until the juvenile reaches age 24.

States such as Texas provide for "automatic restriction of access" of juvenile records, but this is not the same thing as getting the record sealed or destroyed. It means that most people will not be able to access it. Still, some people will, such as state or federal criminal justice agencies conducting an investigation.

If your state does not automatically seal or expunge your juvenile record, you may be able to clear your record by filing a motion in court. However, some offenses may not be eligible for expungement in some states, including violent crimes and sex crimes.

Can a Juvenile Justice Lawyer Help?

juvenile defense attorney may be able to offer several options to help your child avoid severe criminal penalties and incarceration. Many children are caught up in the wrong place, at the wrong time. An experienced juvenile defense lawyer can build a strong defense and may be able to avoid a conviction. They can also negotiate with the court to avoid serious penalties, including juvenile detention and a permanent criminal record. This could include getting probation or participating in a diversion program instead.