Before social reformers made it their mission in the early twentieth century to differentiate between juvenile offenders and adult criminals, anyone over the age of 7 who was convicted of a crime was punished as an adult. Many argued that this policy was much more effective in preparing children for a life crime than it was in preventing children from re-offending. After tireless efforts on the part of child advocates and reformers, those in power came to agree and a new system of juvenile justice focused on education and rehabilitation rather than punishment was born.
Each state has its own juvenile justice system. While there are differences between the states, a general rule of thumb is that a minor between the ages of 7 and 18 will be under the jurisdiction of juvenile court. Most scholars believe that children under the age of 7 cannot possess the criminal intent necessary to be responsible for committing a crime.
All states have a mechanism by which a minor can be tried in adult criminal court, otherwise known as judicial waiver. In most states, a waiver occurs when a juvenile court judge decides that a minor, due to the severity of a crime or the minor’s criminal history, should not be afforded the protection of the juvenile system. Over half the states have ruled that certain crimes — such as first-degree murder — must be tried in adult criminal court.
Once police officers have taken a minor into custody, they will refer the case to the juvenile system. An intake officer then evaluates whether or not formal charges should be pressed. In many jurisdictions, the intake officer has discretion as to how the violation should be handled and can choose an informal reprimand, counseling, compensation for property damage or community service.
If an intake officer feels that formal charges are necessary, then the minor might be detained in a juvenile correction facility or an alternative facility, such as a group home or a foster home. The child then has an arraignment where a juvenile court judge presents him or her with the charges. Most cases will then remain in juvenile court, where the minor will either enter a plea agreement or face adjudication (the equivalent of a bench trial in criminal court). If a judge decides that a minor is delinquent — in other words, guilty — then the judge decides on the appropriate disposition (or sentence).
Constitutional Rights of Minors
The Supreme court case In Re Gault established that juveniles, like adults in a criminal proceeding, had the right to counsel, the right to confront witnesses and the right against self-incrimination. Law enforcement must now give minors the Miranda warnings and provide the opportunity to have a parent present during an interrogation.
Certain types activities are only offenses if they are committed by juveniles. For example, skipping school, consumption of alcohol and curfew violations are lawful for anyone over the age of 18 — or 21, in the case of alcohol consumption — but legally prohibited to children. Most jurisdictions have granted authority to prosecutors to “divert” these types of offenses to other agencies before a formal petition is filed, under the assumption that these offenses are relatively minor and a child should not be “put in the system” until he or she is seriously endangering himself or others.
Juvenile court records are sealed and are not open to viewing by the public. Juvenile records can also be expunged after the minor turns eighteen, provided he or she has met certain conditions. As with any criminal proceeding, finding an attorney who specializes in juvenile justice is crucial for families who find themselves navigating their way through the system.
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