The law treats crimes committed by children very differently than adults. Criminal acts by juveniles—people under the age of 18—are dealt with through the juvenile justice system instead of the criminal justice system. This system has its own rules, procedures, and even offenses that apply only to juveniles. One of these offenses, incorrigibility, occurs when a child refuses to accept the authority and discipline of adults.
What is Incorrigibility?
Because children do not have the same rights or duties as adults, the law expects them to comply with the lawful orders given by legal custodians. (Legal custodians include anyone who has the right to care for or supervise the child, such as teachers, day-care providers, or summer camp staff.) A child is considered incorrigible when the child repeatedly or habitually disobeys the direction of the child's lawful parents, guardians, or legal custodians. When a child refuses to accept these orders, this can cause significant problems for the child, the guardians, and the environment in which the child resides.
Incorrigibility: More than Simple Disobedience
Of course, children often disobey their parents, educators, and other adults. At what point does simple disobedience become incorrigibility? Though state laws differ, there are several key components to determining if a child is incorrigible.
- Repeated actions. A juvenile must commit more than one act of disobedience in order to be considered incorrigible. For example, a juvenile in Indiana is considered incorrigible if the youth commits at least 8 instances of incorrigible behavior within a reasonable time period. That time period can be a single school year or a single month in the child's home
- Disruptive, dangerous, disobedient. It isn't enough for a child to simply refuse to eat his vegetables or go to bed on time. In order to qualify as incorrigible, a child's actions must be disruptive or dangerous. The child's actions must threaten the welfare, order, or safety of the environment. For example, a child who refuses to accept the discipline of a teacher or school administrator disrupts the order of the school environment, making such actions disruptive.
- Lawful command. A child cannot be considered incorrigible if the orders the adult gives are illegal. However, this issue rarely arises in incorrigibility cases. Examples of illegal orders include those that would result in the child being forced to commit a crime, or those that would cause the child to suffer abuse or harm. Orders that may violate a child's rights, such as ordering the child to salute the flag or to participate in religious ceremonies, are also not considered lawful.
It is up to a juvenile court to determine if a child is incorrigible. The process differs slightly among states, but typically begins when a parent, guardian, custodian, or child therapist submits a petition or statement to a prosecutor or juvenile intake officer. The petition asks for an investigation or a hearing, to determine if the child is incorrigible. After that, the prosecutor will determine how to proceed with the case, which may end in one of several ways:
- Decline to proceed. A prosecutor may choose not to pursue any formal or informal proceeding. The circumstances when a prosecutor may choose to take this course differ, but prosecutors commonly will not pursue any proceeding if there is not enough evidence to believe an offense occurred, or if the juvenile in question committed it.
- Informal Proceeding. An informal juvenile proceeding is one in which the prosecutor brings the juvenile before a court official. This official is typically a judge, but it may also be a probation officer. The judge may then give the juvenile a lecture and a warning, order therapy or counseling, or impose probation, a fine, or community service. The process is informal because the prosecutor never enters a formal charge against the juvenile. (See the section on Incorrigibility Punishments, below.)
- Formal Proceeding. If the prosecutor believes the child's actions warrant formal charges, the juvenile will then face a formal proceeding. These are very similar to criminal trials, but are known as “juvenile hearings” or “adjudicatory hearings.” The child is formally charged with an offense, and the court will determine if the child should be released or held in custody until the hearing. In more serious cases, such as when violent or sexual offenses are involved, a court may decide the case should be heard by an adult criminal court.
Once a court determines that a juvenile is incorrigible, it can impose a range of sentences. Courts often impose one or more of the following for incorrigible juveniles:
- Fines. The court can impose a fine if appropriate. The amount of the fine often depends upon the circumstances of the case, such as whether property damage was involved, or whether the juvenile also committed traffic offenses. However, it’s not typical for juveniles to be fined and not also receive other consequences, like those described below.
- Probation. The court can impose a probation sentence that requires the juvenile to regularly contact a probation officer for a period of months, typically for 12 months or more. The juvenile must comply with the terms established by the court and the officer, such as attending school regularly, complying with a curfew, and not committing more offenses.
- Counseling. A court can require the youth, and his parents or guardians, to attend therapy or counseling sessions. Counseling is often provided by state social workers or psychologists.
- Community Service. The youth may be sentenced to perform community service. The court may order the juvenile to complete a specific number of hours or complete a community service program. The type of service can range dramatically, and includes programs that require the juvenile to clean public areas to assisting in homeless shelters or community centers for the elderly.
- Detention. A court may also sentence a juvenile to serve time in a juvenile detention center. Similar to jails, detention centers confine the juvenile to a facility. Detention is the most severe punishment a juvenile court can administer.
Just as adults have specific rights in the criminal justice system, so too do juvenile have rights in the juvenile justice system. Juveniles, parents, administrators, and guardians who have questions or who need advice should seek out an experienced attorney as soon as possible. The need for good counsel is particularly acute if the prosecutor is considering bringing formal charges and asking that the case be transferred to adult court. Speaking to an experienced, local attorney who knows the juvenile system in your area is the best way to ensure your rights are protected.