When a juvenile—a person under the age of 18—commits a crime, the act is dealt with through the juvenile justice system and not the criminal justice system. However, the offenses juvenile courts deal with are largely the same as those dealt with in adult courts. All states, for example, criminalize theft and burglary, and a juvenile who commits these offenses can face juvenile charges.
When a juvenile violates a city ordinance, or a state or federal criminal law, the juvenile is considered a delinquent, not a criminal. This distinction may seem needless or academic, but it reflects the law's assumption that juveniles are not legal adults because they are not entirely capable of making their own decisions.
A court can decide that a juvenile is a delinquent after a single act of delinquency, though some state laws require multiple or repeated acts before a court can make such a determination. Once a court determines a child is delinquent, it can then impose punishments similar to those that an adult might face if convicted of a crime.
The term “theft” covers a wide range of illegal actions, including embezzlement and false pretenses. In juvenile cases, it typically addresses what used to be categorized as larceny, the taking of someone else's property with the intent to permanently deprive the owner of that property. A juvenile convicted of a theft offense is typically considered a delinquent.
Deprive. A person committing a theft must take another person's property with the intent to permanently deprive that person of the property. It's also enough to take the property with the intention to only give it back after the owner pays a reward or ransom, or to dispose of it or use it in such a way that it's unlikely that the owner will ever be able to recover or use it.
Misdemeanor vs. felony. State laws differentiate between felonies and misdemeanors. In theft cases, the value of the property is typically what determines whether the crime is a misdemeanor or a felony, with felonies having more significant sentences than misdemeanors. However, because juveniles are not charged with crimes, this distinction is not as important, though a court can use the value of the property as a factor when making a sentencing determination. (See the section on Juvenile Punishments, below.)
To get more information on theft laws in general, see Theft, Embezzlement, Robbery, and Larceny Laws.
A burglary occurs when a person enters a structure with the intent to commit a crime. Even if the person doesn't actually commit the crime after entering the building, having the intention to do so is enough to commit a burglary. For example, someone who enters a home after kicking down the back-door in an attempt to steal a television, but who runs away after encountering the family dog, has committed a burglary.
Building. Entering any home, building, or occupied structure is enough for the purposes of burglary laws. The structure can be a temporary one, such as a tent, and does not have to be man-made, such as a natural cave. The structure cannot be open to the public at the time, nor can it be abandoned or one in which the defendant has a license or privilege to enter.
Force. While traditional burglary laws required a person to use force in order to gain entry to the building, that is no longer always required. Though some states may still require a “force” or “breaking” element in burglary, the force required can be as little as gently pushing open a door or lifting an un-locked window.
Intent. A person must enter a structure with the intent to commit a crime. If there is no such intention at the time of entry, the person has committed an illegal entry or criminal trespass. However, if someone forms the intention to steal something while already in the structure and then, for example, goes into another room, this is enough to satisfy the intent requirement.
Entry. A person doesn't have to completely enter a structure to commit a burglary. It's enough, for example, to reach in a hand or use some tool to illegally enter the structure.
Juvenile courts typically have much broader powers to determine a juvenile sentence, known as a disposition. Because of this, individual dispositions for juvenile crimes can differ much more broadly than they would for adult convictions for the same offense.
Fines. A juvenile court can sentence a juvenile to pay a fine for the theft or burglary, though they are typically small and not all states allow for juvenile fines.
Restitution. In cases where theft or damage to property is present, a court can order a juvenile to pay damages to the victims. The court may also order the juvenile to find or maintain employment in order to pay the restitution.
Counseling. Judges can order a juvenile to attend counseling or therapy, either with or without court supervision. They may also order psychiatric evaluation or commitment to a mental or hospital facility for observation and evaluation.
Probation. A court can order a juvenile to a probation period of several months or more. During this time, the juvenile must comply with all the terms the court imposes and regularly meet with a probation officer. If the juvenile fails to comply with the orders, the court cam impose additional punishment.
Detention. Juvenile courts may order the juvenile to work in a youth-service program, weekend detention program, or full-time detention in a juvenile detention center or juvenile home. The court has broad discretion in determining how long a detention is appropriate.
To learn more about the juvenile criminal process, see Exploring the Juvenile "Criminal" Process.
Juveniles have the same right to a legal defense as do adults. Anyone facing juvenile charges needs the advice of a local 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.