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Juvenile Delinquency

Key Takeaways:

  • Juvenile delinquency refers to minors who break the law, which can cover a wide range of "minor" and serious offenses.
  • Juveniles still have the ability to change their behavior if they receive the right services because their brains are still developing. 
  • A juvenile lawyer can help you understand juvenile court probation, community work services, and out-of-home placement.

Adolescents are more prone to peer pressure. Evidence-based criminology research shows that children’s brains are not fully developed intellectually or emotionally, meaning they may not appreciate the consequences of their actions.

Our juvenile justice system was set up to treat children differently than adults in the criminal system. Juvenile courts are supposed to be rehabilitative, and provide more individualized care and resources to support the children in the system. Unfortunately, that is not always the case.

If you have questions about juvenile delinquency and protecting a child’s rights, talk to a juvenile justice lawyer for legal advice.

What Does Juvenile Delinquency Mean?

The legal definition of a juvenile delinquent is a minor who violates the law. Status offenses, curfew, truancy, or runaway violations are only considered an offense because of a child’s age. Status offenses are not crimes for adults. These offenses are handled in child protection court.

The age of young people for juvenile delinquency depends on the state, but it typically is someone younger than 18 years old. However, in many states, the age a juvenile can be on probation is 19 years old. Additionally, “extended jurisdiction juveniles” (EJJ) can stay within the juvenile system in some states until 21 years old.

Common Types of Juvenile Delinquency Offenses

Juvenile crimes could involve any type of criminal activity, from minor infractions to felony crimes. Some of the most common delinquency offenses include:

  • Drug violations
  • Simple assault, domestic violence, and aggravated assault
  • Criminal damage to property, theft, and other robbery and burglary crimes
  • Obstruction of justice
  • Disorderly conduct
  • Vandalism
  • Trespassing
  • Weapons offenses

Penalties and Treatment for Juvenile Delinquents

The penalties for juvenile delinquency 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 a child for a delinquent act, a juvenile court judge may have some discretion in sentencing. When sentencing children, a juvenile court judge may have various sentencing options, including sentencing to a juvenile facility, regular jail, or home confinement.

Juvenile delinquency penalties may include:

  • Fines and restitution
  • Curfew and probation
  • Community service
  • Mental health and substance abuse treatment, including rehab and counseling
  • Driver’s license suspension
  • Wearing an electronic home monitoring ankle bracelet

Juvenile Detention

Detention or long-term residential placement is often a default for serious or repeat 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. A child’s juvenile lawyer can advocate for a residential placement equipped to support the child’s behavioral and mental health.

Children in detention facilities are at greater risk for abuse, sexual assault, and mental health problems. 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 criminal justice system, including:

  • Substance abuse
  • Mental health issues
  • Cognitive disabilities
  • Low socioeconomic status or poverty
  • Child abuse at the hands of family members or broken homes
  • Gang membership and antisocial behavior
  • Poor school performance
  • Living in high-crime neighborhoods

Juvenile Delinquency Prevention

Early intervention provides the greatest opportunity for helping a juvenile avoid continued legal troubles. Prevention options include early education intervention, diversion programs, restorative justice options, and treatment for mental health, substance abuse, and behavioral disorders.

Community Programs

Though the issue is usually up to states, the federal government established the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) in the U.S. Department of Justice. This program supports states to make their own community-based treatment programs for juvenile offenders.

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 a Juvenile Record

A criminal record can hurt someone’s ability to move on. A one-time mistake could follow someone for the rest of their life, making it more difficult to get a job, get an education, get scholarships, public benefits, or find housing.

In most states, juvenile records are confidential. Other states will allow public access to juvenile records based on the crime. For example, law enforcement in California can release the names of juvenile delinquents accused of “serious” or violent crimes and prohibits 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 law enforcement.

If you have a juvenile delinquency record, it may be possible to get that record sealed or expunged to improve your future opportunities. Sealing means it will no longer be available for public searches, including most background checks. Court systems and government agencies may still have access to sealed records. Expunging means 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, depending on the charge, records are automatically expunged two years after the case was closed and the juvenile commits no other offenses. Other states may wait for several years after the juvenile becomes an adult. For example, Florida automatically expunges when the juvenile reaches age 24.

States such as Texas permit the “automatic restriction of access” of juvenile records. While most people will not be able to access it, state or federal law enforcement can as part of an investigation.

In states that don’t automatically seal or expunge juvenile records, it may be possible to file a motion in court. However, offenses like violent crimes or sex crimes may not be eligible.

How Can a Juvenile Justice Lawyer Help?

An experienced juvenile defense attorney can outline the available options to help your child avoid severe criminal penalties and incarceration for delinquent behavior. Many adolescents 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 an adjudication, another juvenile court term for conviction.

A lawyer can also negotiate with the prosecutor to help your child avoid serious penalties, including juvenile detention and a permanent criminal record.

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