Juvenile delinquency can include everything from an eighth grader skipping school to a child shoplifting from a neighborhood retailer, to a 17-year-old committing murder. Whenever children under the age of 18 (minors) are accused of committing crimes, they are dealt with (at least initially) by the juvenile justice system in the state in which they live. As a very general rule, juvenile courts acknowledge that children who commit crimes should be treated differently than adults and, as a result, the courts are more focused on rehabilitation and less focused on punishment. However, attitudes vary from state and state and from case to case, and the current trend seems to be toward more punitive juvenile justice systems.
Different rules apply in dependency cases and delinquency cases. This article focuses on delinquency cases, although, unfortunately, many children in dependency cases later end up in delinquency cases.
For more information on juvenile crimes and their penalties, see Juvenile Crimes.
Juvenile courts generally handle a few different kinds of cases:
Juvenile court proceedings are more informal than adult criminal proceedings. Police officers, probation officers, and judges often have greater discretion in dealing with children than they do when handling adult cases. Many cases are resolved without formal charges (called a petition) ever being filed against the child. Formal charges are most likely to be filed when:
Statistics show that boys and children who display a bad attitude or seem remorseless may be more likely to have petitions filed against them. Poor children and racial and ethnic minorities are also more likely to have charges filed.
In some cases, where the charges are very serious or where the child has a significant criminal record, children are taken out of the juvenile court system and dealt with in adult criminal court. State laws vary as to the age at which a child can be tried as an adult, but the general trend is for younger and younger children to be tried as adults. In deciding whether to transfer the case to adult court, the main issue is whether the child is amenable to rehabilitation. Often, it is in the child’s best interest to stay in juvenile court, where punishments are usually less severe and records are more likely to remain private. However, in some cases, adult court may be preferable. As discussed below, juveniles are not entitled to the same constitutional rights as adult defendants.
For more information on children being tried as adults, see Who decides to try a juvenile as an adult?
Children do not enjoy the same constitutional rights as adults. For example, courts have ruled that minors attending school are entitled to expectations of privacy that are less robust than adults' expectations, which allows school officials to search their belongings absent the degree of probable cause (good reason) they would need for an adult. However, juveniles do have the right to legal representation in delinquency proceedings (and the state must provide lawyers to children who cannot afford them).
Minors have the right to remain silent and may call their parents or refuse to talk to police until they have spoken to their parents. Indeed, any child who faces possible criminal charges should not talk to police without their parents or an attorney present. In most states, there is no right to a jury trial in delinquency cases, but children do have the right to cross-examine witnesses and cannot be compelled to incriminate themselves (testify).
If a judge determines that a juvenile has committed the accused crime (that is, the judge sustains the petition), the court can incarcerate the child in an adult prison, a juvenile facility, or a group home. Sometimes, children are sentenced to juvenile facilities until they turn 18 and then they are moved to an adult prison.
In both formal and informal proceedings, children can also be subject to other penalties, such as:
A child whose case is transferred to adult court will usually receive a harsher sentence and be sent to an adult prison.
Compared to adult criminal records, juvenile records are less likely to be available publicly and it is often easier to seal or expunge (clear or destroy) juvenile records. However, a juvenile record can still result in a greater sentence if the child is later convicted of another crime, whether as a child or adult.
For more information on juvenile records, and for links to an article explaining the expungement rules in your state, see Expunging or Sealing a Juvenile Court Record.
It is always a good idea to talk to an attorney who specializes in, or at least regularly handles, juvenile delinquency cases if you or your child is facing criminal charges or a criminal investigation. In some cases, where the charges are not serious and the child has no record, a child may be better off not retaining counsel and dealing with the matter informally. However, you should always at least talk to an attorney before making the decision to proceed without legal assistance. Most children can benefit from the assistance of a qualified attorney to help them navigate the criminal justice system and protect their rights.