When a person under the age of 18 commits a crime, that person is usually not dealt with in the criminal justice system, but rather through the juvenile justice system. The juvenile system has its own courts, judges, prosecutors, and rules. However, the crime of shoplifting is the same for juveniles as it is for adults. The only difference is how a juvenile court handles the case.
Shoplifting is a type of theft, also known as larceny. Many states divide theft into grand and petty theft (the latter involves stealing something worth less than a specified amount, typically $500 or less). Some states also make shoplifting a distinct crime -- it is petty theft from a retail establishment.
For more information on shoplifting and petty theft, including state-specific articles on how each state defines and punishes adults for these crimes, start here: Petty Theft and Shoplifting Laws.
Because the law does not consider juveniles to have the same ability to make choices as adults, the penalties for juvenile shoplifting are intended to teach and correct rather than punish. Juvenile courts have a very wide latitude in determining the type of penalty that is appropriate in each case. For this reason, juvenile shoplifting penalties can be very different from case to case.
- Release to Parents. In minor, first-time cases of shoplifting, a juvenile court may choose to do nothing more than release the juvenile to a parent or guardian's care. In these situations, the court will often give the juvenile a lecture or stern warning about shoplifting and the trouble that can come with further violations.
- Restitution. A court can order a juvenile to pay restitution to the property owner for the value of the shoplifted property. If the juvenile has a job, the court may order the juvenile to continue employment until the restitution is paid. If the juvenile is old enough to work but doesn't have a job, the court may order that the juvenile find employment and work to pay off the restitution money.
- Probation. A court can also order probation for juveniles convicted of shoplifting. Juvenile probation often lasts about 6 months, though it may last longer depending on the circumstances. Probation terms require the juvenile to take specific actions, such as to stay in school, obey the reasonable orders of parents, guardians, and school officials, and regularly report to a probation officer during the probation period. If the juvenile doesn't comply, the court can impose a more significant penalty.
- Diversion. A deferment is similar to probation, though it is less formal. Through a diversion program, a prosecutor agrees to allow a juvenile to enter into a diversion program that has similar terms to probation. The juvenile may, for example, have to participate in an education program, perform community service, maintain a specific grade-point average, or meet other requirements. Diversion programs are typically only available to first-time offenders and allow them a chance to avoid a more formal juvenile court proceeding.
- Counseling. A court can order counseling where appropriate. Juvenile counseling may be provided through state services, or the court may order the parents or guardians to find an appropriate individual or family counselor.
- Confinement or placement. In serious shoplifting cases, or where the juvenile is a repeat offender, the court may order a juvenile to a juvenile detention facility, weekend detention program, or boot-camp style program. If the court finds that the juvenile's home environment is dangerous or contributing to the juvenile's delinquency, it can also order the juvenile into a foster home or other state facility that cares for neglected or needy children.
Juveniles who have gone through a juvenile court proceeding should investigate to see whether they can seal their juvenile court record. For information on how to do that, see "Expunging or Sealing a Juvenile Court Record," which has links to articles for each state, explaining the process.
Talk to a Lawyer
Juvenile shoplifting is not an insignificant charge. Any shoplifting conviction could have a serious impact on the life of a juvenile, as well as the juvenile's family. Whether you have been charged with juvenile shoplifting or you are a parent or guardian of a juvenile who has, you need to talk to a local criminal defense lawyer as soon as possible. A local attorney who has experience dealing with juvenile court judges and prosecutors is the only person who can give you legal advice about your case.