Almost every state in the United States has established a juvenile court system to handle the legal matters of minors. Typically, these legal matters fall into three categories including: (1) criminal matters; (2) abuse and neglect cases; and (3) truancy or delinquency cases.
Juvenile delinquency takes place when a minor, someone under the age of 17 or 18, depending on the state or territory, commits a criminal act.
The age of children who are eligible to be tried under the juvenile court system varies from state to state. Typically, however, children under the age of seven are found to be too young to be in either the juvenile or the adult court system. Similarly, sometime between age 14 and 19, most states find that the accused are able to stand trial in adult court.
Most states will automatically process anyone under age 18 who is accused of a crime as a juvenile. A few states set that age limit at 16 and other states make the age limit contingent on the seriousness of the alleged crime committed.
Many legal experts consider participating in juvenile delinquency to be part of a pattern or pathway potentially leading to a prison term later in life. This makes the prevention of juvenile delinquency a top concern not only for law enforcement officials and the judiciary but also for politicians and academics who are involved in the field of criminal justice.
Many people believe that minors can be more easily rehabilitated than adults and that minors are not always responsible for their actions because they lack the mental capabilities of an adult. Therefore, juvenile courts were established to hear the cases of minors accused of crimes. Juvenile court systems exist at the federal, state, and local levels, each having its own responsibility depending on the offender.
More serious offenses are sometimes pushed up the chain to the federal courts, while less concerning violations or scenarios may be heard in state or municipal juvenile courts. The juvenile court system is meant to provide the best possible future life for the children in its system. That is true whether the children are youthful offenders, victims of abuse or neglect or delinquents in need of protection from themselves.
In some circumstances, the case will go forward and the defendant will be tried as a minor in juvenile court. However, if certain circumstances exist then it might be possible for the minor to avoid formal charges. Usually, a juvenile judge and prosecutor will consider the seriousness of the crime, the alleged offender's age, the alleged offender's criminal record and the ability of the parents to control the child.
If a judge finds that the allegations against a minor have been proven, the judge will find the minor to be a youthful offender and will decide the disposition of the case. If the minor is not a threat to others, he or she may receive probation. However, if the minor has been found to have committed a serious crime, they will likely be sent to a juvenile correction facility. Juvenile correction facilities are supposed to provide education and rehabilitation services for youthful offenders.
Statistics from the National Center for Juvenile Justice (NCJJ) indicate that around 700,000 youth per year are arrested. Statistics also show that the number of cases handled by juvenile courts in the United States declined by nearly half (or 48%) from 2009 to 2018.
The challenge of juvenile delinquency still remains a pertinent matter of policy, however. About 20% of youth currently held in juvenile facilities have yet to be found guilty or delinquent, raising questions of civil and individual rights. Further complicating matters is the fact that nearly half, or about 40% of all juvenile corrections facilities across the country are owned by private corporations and organizations.
The most common juvenile crimes involve simple assault, which is unlawful intentional infliction, or threatened with intentional infliction, of nonserious bodily harm without a deadly weapon, as well as drug law violations, larceny, obstruction of justice and disorderly conduct. These criminal charges constitute about two-thirds of all cases involving underage offenders.
For many people, harsh school and municipal policies that are seen as creating young offenders, often under zero-tolerance guidelines point to a "school-to-prison pipeline" as a growing trend in juvenile delinquency. Advocates for the practice of restorative justice and decarceration argue that these harsh policies push at-risk or disadvantaged youth into a career of adult crime, particularly in minority communities.
Opponents of these policies suggest that the media shoulders much of the blame for the sensationalistic coverage of alleged youth offenders, particularly if the details of the alleged offense are violent or sexual in nature.
If you a juvenile or a parent of a juvenile facing charges, you should immediately contact an experienced juvenile criminal defense lawyer with a background in juvenile justice. This is especially important if your child has been charged with a more serious offense, that could lead to being charged as an adult.