What Is an Adjudicatory Hearing?

An adjudicatory hearing is the juvenile court equivalent of a criminal trial.

By , J.D.

An adjudicatory hearing is the juvenile court equivalent of a criminal trial. When a juvenile (typically a person younger than 18, though some people under 18 can be charged as adults) is accused of a crime, the juvenile is not subject to the same criminal justice system that an adult would. Instead, juveniles go through the juvenile justice system. Though there are similarities between the juvenile justice system and the criminal justice system, there are some significant differences as well.

The Juvenile Justice System

In the eyes of the law, juveniles do not have the same mental capacities as adults. Legally, they can't enter into binding agreements, grant consent, or, more generally, exercise the same decision-making abilities that adults do. When a juvenile commits a crime, the juvenile court and prosecutors have the ability to take actions that are typically not available in an adult criminal court.

Pre-Adjudication Options

Juveniles who are accused of committing a crime don't always have to go before a court in an adjudicatory hearing. The adjudicatory hearing (similar to a criminal trial) represents the final option in the juvenile justice process and is typically used only in the most serious cases.

Prior to that stage, the police, prosecutors, and the juvenile court can use alternative measures to ensure the juvenile is punished or rehabilitated. Some of these measures include:

  • Warning and release. When a police officer investigates a juvenile for a possible crime, the officer can issue a warning and not do anything else.
  • Hold for a parent or guardian. In addition to a warning, a police officer might choose to detain a juvenile suspected of committing an offense. Upon releasing the juvenile to parents or guardians, the officer will then typically warn the juvenile and make the parents aware of the serious nature of the situation.
  • Informal adjudication. When police refer a juvenile case to the juvenile court prosecutor, the prosecutor sometimes decides not to file formal charges. In this situation, the juvenile may receive a strong warning from the judge, be ordered to perform some probation-like activities, pay a fine, or accomplish some community service.
  • Diversion. The juvenile prosecutor or the juvenile court might also allow the juvenile to enter into a diversion agreement. With a diversion agreement, the juvenile agrees to enter into counseling, pay restitution, serve probation, or comply with other punitive or rehabilitative measures. If the juvenile completes the punishments as agreed, the prosecutor or court then drops the charges, meaning the juvenile is never formally charged for the offense.

The Adjudicatory Hearing

If the prosecutor believes that an adjudicatory hearing is appropriate, the prosecutor will file formal charges (usually called a petition) against the juvenile. The court will then begin the adjudicatory hearing process. Like the criminal process, this typically involves an initial hearing where the prosecutor formally charges the juvenile, as well as an evidentiary hearing where the court determines if there is enough evidence to prove that the juvenile committed the offense.

Unlike most criminal trials, adjudicatory hearings are typically held only in front of the judge, not a judge and jury. During the hearing, the prosecutor must present evidence to show the juvenile committed the offense. The accused juvenile will also have a defense attorney who can present evidence and defend against the claims made by the prosecution.

If the court determines that the juvenile committed the offenses, it will declare the juvenile delinquent (similar to an adult conviction). Once the court finds that the juvenile is delinquent, it will then make a dispositional ruling. A disposition is very much like a sentence in a criminal case.

Depending on the circumstances of the crime and the laws of the state, a disposition could include a fine, restitution for damaged property, probation, confinement to a juvenile detention facility, probation, community service, or other penalties as the court deems appropriate.

Seek Legal Advice

Juveniles accused of a crime have the right to be represented by an attorney. Even though the juvenile justice system is not the same as the criminal justice system, anyone accused of a crime needs to talk to a criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. Whether you are a juvenile accused of a crime, or that juvenile's parent or guardians, talking to an attorney in your area who understands how the local juvenile justice courts and prosecutors work is the only way to ensure that your rights are protected.

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