Last updated 1/8/2020
When children commit crimes, whether it's shoplifting or assault and battery, their cases are typically heard in juvenile court, where the emphasis is on counseling and rehabilitation versus hard time. The common belief is that juveniles still have a lot of time to mature and become functioning members of society, along with concerns that adult prisons are no place for a minor.
The following is background information about juvenile justice, including how "juvenile" is defined, trying juveniles as adults, and more.
In the eyes of the law, a juvenile or a minor is any person under the legal adult age. This age varies from state to state, but in most states the legal age of majority is 18. In several states, such as New York, Connecticut, and North Carolina, a juvenile is age 16 or younger; and in Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Missouri, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Texas and Wisconsin, a juvenile is age 17 or younger.
Wyoming is the only state that has established the age of juveniles to be 19 or younger.
As well as having upper age limits, juvenile jurisdictions also have lower age limits. Most states specify that prior to age six or seven, juveniles lack mens rea, or criminal intent. At this young age, juveniles also are thought to lack the ability to tell right from wrong, or dolci incapax.
The age of the offender at the time the offense was committed typically determines jurisdiction. But in some states, age refers to the offender's age at the time of apprehension. This arrangement allows for the sometimes lengthy periods it takes to clear a case.
One's status as a juvenile or as an adult is pertinent for the court's determination of the jurisdiction under which an offender falls: the adult or the juvenile court system. If it's decided that a juvenile will be tried in a juvenile court, most states allow the juvenile to remain under that jurisdiction until the defendant's 21st birthday.
Relying on age as a sole determinant for adulthood has been criticized by many criminologists and policy makers since individuals develop at different rates. Some youth are far more mature at 17 or 18 than are some adults. Because of this discrepancy, juvenile court judges have been given broad discretion to waive juveniles to adult court for trial and sentencing.
In rare situations, the courts also have the power to emancipate a juvenile in a civil proceeding so that they become an adult under the law and are granted certain adult privileges. For example, if a 17-year-old loses both parents and has no other living relatives, they could be emancipated in order to pursue custody of their younger siblings.
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The juvenile justice system operates differently from the one used to try adult cases, mostly as a way to protect children and hopefully guide them to make better choices as they get older. But regardless of whether your case is in adult or juvenile court, legal representation can make a big difference in the outcome. For this reason, you should consider reaching out to a local criminal defense attorney if you've been charged with a crime.