Criminal defendants who haven't quite reached the age of majority (18 in most states) go through a different criminal justice system than the one most people are familiar with. The idea behind having a separate juvenile justice system for minors who commit crimes is that they're young and have a better chance at straightening out their lives than do adults. There are also concerns about subjecting children to adult punishments, particularly prison.
The following is an introduction to what goes on in the "juvenile justice" system.
Who Goes To Juvenile Court?
The age group covered by the juvenile justice system varies from state to state, but in general most courts follow these general guidelines:
Detaining a Minor
Police officers don't necessarily have to refer a minor suspect to juvenile court. The leeway a police officer is given depends on the state, but in general they can elect to:
Once a case is referred to juvenile court, a juvenile court officer (often a probation officer) or prosecutor will then make a decision on whether to dismiss the matter, handle the matter "off the record," or file formal charges for the crime.
Handling the Matter "Off the Record"
Even if a juvenile court officer decides not to formally pursue the matter, they may still require the minor to appear before the officer or a judge. The officer or judge has a great deal of discretion in dealing out informal judgments, and will at the very least lecture the minor. Other potential remedies include requiring counseling, paying a fine, repaying the victim, performing community service or putting the minor on probation. Also, if the juvenile court officer believes that the child has been abused or neglected, he or she may initiate proceedings to remove custody of the child from their parents.
Filing Formal Juvenile Charges
If charges are filed against a minor, here is what you can expect:
How to Avoid Formal Charges
Juvenile court officers and prosecutors consider a wide variety of factors when deciding whether or not to file formal charges. Here's a list of the most common factors found in the juvenile justice system:
Unfortunately, other far less "fair" factors may come into play, such as the minor's appearance, gender (boys are more likely to have charges filed), socio-economic status, and ethnicity. Remember, it always pays to be polite, and in this case, contrite. Antagonizing the officials involved is a virtual guarantee that charges will be filed.
Questions About the Juvenile Justice System? Talk to an Attorney Today
While so many of us may have committed a minor crime or infraction and still kept our job or our school enrollment, the American attitude toward small crimes is no longer a small matter. Even a dismissed charge or a diversionary sentence, if found, can destroy a person's chances for a scholarship or a good job. So if you've been arrested or charged with a juvenile offense, your best move is to find a criminal defense attorney near you.