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How do Juvenile Proceedings Differ from Adult Criminal Proceedings?

Children who commit crimes have a complicated status as far as the legal world is concerned. Since they are children with less understanding of the laws, they deserve special protections. However, since they are still minors, they do not have all the constitutional rights that adults have. Many of the juvenile courts' procedures reflect an effort to balance these two concerns and rehabilitate juvenile delinquents.

Who is a Juvenile?

Most states consider a juvenile a person between the ages of ten and eighteen, however, some states set the maximum juvenile age as sixteen. Anyone over a state's given age limit is tried as an adult. Furthermore, sometimes older juveniles who commit serious or violent crimes are tried as adults, even though they would normally be considered juveniles.

The courts use different terms for juvenile offenders than for adult offenders. First, juveniles commit "delinquent acts" instead of "crimes," and juvenile offenders have "adjudication hearings" instead of "trials." States differ on the definition of the most basic term: "juvenile."

Juvenile's Rights and Protections

Juveniles do not have all of the same constitutional rights as adults do. For example, juveniles' adjudication hearings are heard by judges because youthful offenders do not have the right to a trial by jury of their peers. They also do not have the right to bail or to a public trial.

However, juveniles do have some extra protections in the juvenile court system that they would likely not otherwise receive in the adult criminal court. Their records are sealed so that they are not haunted by their juvenile offenses for their entire life. Once the juvenile turns 18, her records are usually expunged (erased) if the juvenile has met certain conditions. They also have rights to notice of their delinquent acts before the adjudication hearing, the right to prerelease if their delinquent acts are not violent, and the right to an attorney, including a free public defender if they cannot afford one on their own.

Juvenile Court Rulings or Dispositions

Once the case is adjudicated, the judge decides the case's "disposition," in other words, whether the juvenile is guilty or not, and what the sentence should be. Judges must follow certain guidelines when sentencing, and must act in the best interest of the child. Unlike one of the goals in a typical adult criminal case, the purpose of a juvenile sentence is not to punish, but instead primarily to rehabilitate the juvenile so that he can go on to live a productive adult life.

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