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Juvenile Court Procedure

Created by FindLaw's team of legal writers and editors.

The procedure and organization of the juvenile court system is different from the adult system. For example, after committing an offense, juveniles are "detained" rather than arrested. Next, a petition is drawn up which is the official charging document. This petition outlines the jurisdiction authority of the juvenile court over the offense and detained individuals, gives notice for the reason for the court appearance, and serves as notice to the minor's family.

In the Courtroom

Once in court, the juvenile case is adjudicated and a disposition is handed down. Records from juvenile courts are sealed documents, unlike adult records which are accessible by anyone under the Freedom of Information Act. Like diversion, this measure is designed to protect the juvenile so that one mistake doesn't follow them for life. Juvenile records may also be expunged upon the juvenile's eighteenth birthday provided they've met certain conditions, such as good behavior. Juvenile court procedure is also far less formal than adult court procedure.

The court's ability to interfere in both criminal and other matters relating to juveniles is the product of a very old legal concept called parens patriae. This legal concept regards the government as the legal protector of citizens unable to protect themselves. Even today, the disposition of a juvenile case is based on the least detrimental alternative, so the legacy of parens patriae is still evident.

One major controversy in juvenile dispositions is the use of indeterminate sentencing, which allows a judge to set a maximum sentence. In such cases, juveniles are monitored during their sentences and are released only when the judge is satisfied that they have been rehabilitated or when the maximum time has been served. Critics argue that this arrangement allows the judge too much discretion and is, therefore, not the least detrimental punishment.

Types of Juvenile Cases

The juvenile court procedure will usually vary depending on the type of case. There are three basic types of juvenile cases:

  1. Juvenile Delinquency Cases: These are cases involving minors whose actions, if they were adults, would be considered crimes and would result in a case in criminal court. Juvenile punishment, and the procedures used in juvenile delinquency courtrooms, differs significantly from adult criminal courts. The focus in juvenile proceedings is generally focused on rehabilitation and avoiding long-term negative repercussions.
  2. Juvenile Dependency Cases: These cases involve minors that have been abused, neglected, or abandoned by their parents or guardians. Cases of this sort focus on protecting the child's safety. They have some similarity to family court cases.
  3. Status Offense Cases: These cases involve status offenses that apply specifically to juveniles. This may include underage drinking or driving, curfew violations, runaways, or truancy.

The organization model varies state by state, and some states, for example, Alabama, allow each county and city jurisdiction to decide which is the best method of organization. Where the juvenile court sits has profound implications for the juvenile process.

Get Legal Help Understanding the Juvenile Court Procedure

Although the juvenile justice system is generally more lenient than the adult criminal justice system a conviction can still have a profound impact on your child's life. Get in touch with a local criminal defense attorney who can help guide you and your child through the process, protect your child's rights and ensure that the most effective defenses are presented.

Next Steps

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