Juvenile Justice System Law and Process

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 What Is Juvenile Court?

The juvenile court is a unique branch of the criminal justice system. It specifically handles criminal proceedings that involve minor defendants, or defendants who are not adults.

Any individual who is under the age of 18 is included in most states. In certain states, for example, Alabama, anyone under the age of 19 is a minor.

When a juvenile defendant is tried in court, the court will consider numerous factors, including:

  • The defendant’s age;
  • Any prior juvenile offenses; and
  • Any social or psychological considerations.

Juvenile courts typically handle less serious offenses, such as misdemeanors and citations that do not result in jail time. This often includes juvenile crimes such as:

  • Minimal theft;
  • Vandalism;
  • Trespassing;
  • Basic assault;
  • Drug and alcohol-related offenses; and
  • A number of traffic violations.

There are, however, some felony cases, especially those involving violent crimes and larger scale thefts.

What Is the Juvenile Court Process?

If a child is arrested or referred to the juvenile court, their parents may face a very emotional time and have many questions. Although the juvenile justice system processes may vary somewhat by state or county, there are certain basic steps that are common across all of the juvenile justice systems.

Juvenile delinquency is conduct that is unlawful committed by a minor. Minors who engage in these types of behaviors repeatedly may become known as juvenile delinquents.

How Does a Juvenile Case Start?

A juvenile legal issue may arise when law enforcement apprehends a minor for violating a state. It more commonly arises, however, when a parent, guardian, or school official refers a problem to the juvenile court.

A court intake officer will evaluate the case, sometimes called a juvenile delinquency case, to determine whether:

  • Further action is necessary;
  • The child should be referred to a social service agency; or
  • The matter should be formally heard in juvenile court.

Can a Juvenile Be Held in Detention before Trial?

If a situation is serious enough, a juvenile may be detained in a juvenile correction facility pending the resolution of the issue. They may also be sent to an alternative placement facility, for example, a:

  • Shelter;
  • Group home; or
  • Foster home.

A juvenile does not have the option to pay bail or to post a bond in order to obtain their release.

Are There Any Alternatives to a Formal Hearing in Juvenile Court?

If an intake officer determines that a formal hearing in juvenile court is not necessary, arrangements can be made for assistance from:

  • School counselors;
  • Mental health services; or
  • Other youth service agencies.

The intake officer will consider a number of factors in deciding whether informal proceedings are appropriate, including the seriousness of the alleged crimes, the minor’s delinquency and social history, and the level of remorse expressed by the minor.

Initiation of Formal Proceedings

If an intake officer determines that a case should be heard in juvenile court, a petition is filed with the court that states that the statute or statutes that the child allegedly violated. This petition is the equivalent of a criminal complaint filed in the adult criminal court.

If the case involves a serious offense, such as rape or murder, the matter may be referred to the district or county attorney’s office. If this occurs, the juvenile may be:

  • Charged as an adult;
  • Tried in the adult criminal courts; and
  • Sentenced to an adult correctional facility.

If a matter proceeds to juvenile court and the minor admits to the allegations that are charged in the petition, a treatment program will be ordered. If the minor denies the allegations in the petition, a hearing similar to the criminal trial of an adult will be held.

At this hearing, the minor has both the right to counsel and the privilege against self-incrimination. Instead of presenting the case to a jury, however, a judge hears the case and determines whether or not the juvenile has committed the acts that were alleged in the petition.

If the allegations in the petition are not proven to the satisfaction of the court, the judge will dismiss the case.


If a judge determines that the allegations were proven, they may rule that the minor is a status offender or a delinquent. A second juvenile court hearing will then be held to determine the disposition of the case.

If the juvenile is not considered to be dangerous to other individuals, they may be placed on probation. While they are on probation, a juvenile is required to follow the rules that are established by the court and to report regularly to their probation officer.

If the juvenile is a serious offender, however, they may be sent to a juvenile correction facility. If a juvenile is required to attend a hearing, it is in their best interest to have representation from a juvenile justice attorney who can ensure that their rights are protected and present their best possible case to the court.

Are There Any Alternative Treatment Options?

Yes, there may be alternative treatment options available, such as community treatment. This may include making restitution to the victim or performing community service.

Residential treatment may also be available. With this type of treatment, the juvenile is sent to a group home or work camp with a focus on rehabilitation.

Nonresidential community treatment may also be available, wherein the juvenile continues to live at home but is provided with services from mental health clinics and other social service agencies.

What Are the Major Similarities and Differences between the Juvenile and Adult Justice Systems?

There are several major similarities and differences between juvenile and adult justice systems. One of the major similarities between the two is that, in both systems, a defendant is granted the same constitutional rights.

These rights include the right to an attorney, the right not to be tried twice for the same crime, as well as other rights. One of the major differences between the two systems is their overall focus.

The focus of the adult justice system is mainly on criminal punishment. Sentencing for an adult typically involves a fine or fail time.

In contrast, the juvenile justice system focuses more on rehabilitation. Therefore, juveniles are typically offered alternative sentencing programs, such as diversion or community service.

Is Sentencing Different in Criminal Cases involving Juveniles?

A juvenile court judge has significantly more latitude to impose rehabilitative measures as an alternative to jail time than judges in adult criminal sentencing cases. In a case that involves an adolescent offender, a judge will frequently recommend the choice that has the least negative sentencing consequences.

For example, the juvenile’s behavior may be observed while they are serving their sentence to ascertain whether they have been successfully rehabilitated. The court may order early release if the offender can demonstrate that they are in good standing and are following the terms of their sentence.

Or, the court may first impose different sentencing guidelines. When a juvenile offender successfully completes their sentence requirements and they reach adulthood, their criminal record may be erased or sealed.

The purpose of sealing these juvenile records is to help the juvenile reintegrate back into society while safeguarding their reputation and their identity.

Should I Consult an Attorney about the Juvenile Justice System?

If you are the parent of a juvenile who has been arrested or referred to a juvenile court, you should consult a juvenile attorney. The juvenile justice system can be complex and the consequences can be great for your child.

A juvenile attorney can advise you regarding your child’s rights and defenses that may be available to them. Having an attorney represent your child is their best chance at a brighter future.

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