Juveniles break the same laws as adults do—but the justice system handles cases involving minors who offend differently from adults who offend. A juvenile charged with committing theft or burglary will go before a juvenile court, rather than an adult court (in most instances). While juvenile judges tend to have more discretion in handing down punishments than adult court judges, they can still send a juvenile to lock up (often called detention) if the circumstances warrant it.
Each state sets an age at which a child who commits an offense is considered a juvenile versus an adult. In most states, someone who commits an offense before turning 18 will be considered a juvenile. A handful of states set the age higher or lower (such as 17 or 19).
A finding of guilty in juvenile court is referred to as an adjudication of delinquency. The penalty for a delinquency adjudication depends on whether the juvenile committed a misdemeanor- or felony-level offense. The judge will also consider the juvenile's age, family background, educational level, and criminal history, along with the circumstances of the offense.
Judges can impose a wide range of penalties for a juvenile, such as community service, restitution, counseling, treatment, curfews, probation, or driver's license suspension. For the most part, juvenile punishments—often called dispositions—focus on rehabilitating the juvenile and preventing future criminal acts. But if the judge determines detention is warranted (such as in a felony case), the juvenile can be placed in a juvenile facility, foster care, or a residential juvenile center.
When it comes to serious felony-level offenses, a state's laws might allow a prosecutor to request that the juvenile case be heard in adult court. Frequently called a transfer to adult court, this situation might occur if the juvenile was previously tried as an adult, has previous felony adjudications, committed a violent offense, or committed the offense with a weapon. If the juvenile is transferred to adult court and found guilty, the juvenile receives an adult conviction and penalty (which can include adult jail or prison). Most state transfer laws only apply to older juveniles—for instance, older than 14.
The term "theft" covers a wide range of illegal actions that involve unlawfully taking someone else's property with the intent of permanently depriving the owner of their property. Theft can include stealing, larceny, embezzlement, shoplifting, and more.
States vary greatly when it comes to theft penalties. The penalty often depends on the type or value of the stolen property. Stealing property valued at less than $2,500, for instance, might be a misdemeanor and anything above that a felony. In some cases, the penalties increase if the crime involved a vulnerable person, such as an elderly adult, or a protected institution, like a school. Some state laws make it a felony to steal certain items regardless of value. These items might include firearms, vehicles (grand theft auto), or drugs.
The distinction between felony and misdemeanor crime is important in juvenile cases. Committing a felony-level offense brings with it the possibility of being transferred to adult court now or at a later time. The possibility of transfer is lower for theft than other crimes mentioned in this article because theft isn't a violent offense. However, a judge will impose a harsher penalty when juvenile theft is a felony versus a misdemeanor.
A juvenile who commits a misdemeanor (petty) theft might not even end up in court. A prosecutor might offer to divert the case out of court, especially if it's a first offense. A felony (grand) theft, however, will likely be adjudicated in court and mean a payment of fines and restitution, along with other sanctions (counseling, community service, or probation).
A burglary occurs when a person unlawfully enters or remains in a structure or building with the intent to commit a crime. Burglary crimes don't need to involve a masked person breaking a window and climbing into a house at night. An offense that one might think is a less serious crime, such as trespass or theft, could actually be considered a burglary under the law.
For instance, a person can commit burglary by lifting open an unlocked window and reaching in to try to grab cash lying on a table. It's also burglary to remain in someone's home after being told to leave and staying there with the intent of stealing something or hurting someone. Entering a school principal's office to vandalize it also constitutes burglary.
And it's still a burglary in all of these cases even if the person doesn't completes the intended crime. For instance, going into the principal's office with spray paint intending to write some choice words but chickening out is enough to be guilty of burglary.
Most burglary offenses are felonies. The actual penalty often depends on whether the person entered a residence or an unoccupied building, whether the intended crime involved bodily harm to another, and whether the person had a weapon. If any of these aggravating circumstances were involved, stiffer penalties apply.
A juvenile facing a delinquency petition (similar to a criminal complaint) for burglary involving the above aggravating factors could end up being placed in juvenile detention or transferred to adult court. (An adult conviction could mean 10 to 20 years' incarceration.) For less serious burglary offenses, such as breaking into a barn or empty warehouse, it's more likely the judge will hand down significant community service hours, fines, and probation requirements.
Robbery charges are very serious for both juveniles and adults. A person commits robbery by taking something from a person by force or threat of force.
Robbery is considered a violent crime because it's committed against a person and involves force, threats, or weapons. Burglary and theft, on the other hand, are often considered non-violent, property offenses because they don't involve a victim's presence. But it's not unheard of for a theft charge to bump up to a robbery upon the prosecution learning that the circumstances show force or threats were involved.
Take, for instance, the school bully who grabs a classmate's arm and demands the classmate hand over his cash and phone. Here, the bully committed robbery. The incident might be reported as theft but the circumstances involved force, making robbery charges possible. And if that school bully was holding a knife, the offense could be charged as armed robbery.
Robbery offenses are almost always felonies. Charges for armed robbery, especially, could result in a transfer to adult court. Robbery convictions in adult court can mean 10 to 30 years' prison time. In juvenile court, a judge would likely enter some type of detention or residential treatment, counseling, restitution to victims, and possibly more.
Juveniles have the same right to a legal defense as do adults. Anyone facing juvenile charges needs the advice of a local criminal defense attorney who is experienced with the juvenile procedures of the local area. Juveniles, as well as parents, guardians, and custodians of any juvenile, should speak to an attorney whenever they have questions about the juvenile justice system.