Almost every state has laws protecting minors’ health, safety, and welfare. Each state has laws regarding school attendance and preventing delinquency, for example. Many municipalities have enacted curfew laws prohibiting children and minors from staying in public areas after certain times, such as 10 p.m.).
The purpose of juvenile protection laws is to protect minors. Generally, these laws focus on conduct that is legal for adults but illegal for minors. Violations of these laws are often called “age-based criminal offenses” or “status offenses.” The purpose of such laws is not so much to punish the minor for illegal acts as it is to protect the minor from the harms or risks of such illegal behavior.
What Are Age-Based Criminal Offenses?
Certain activities are classified as criminal offenses if they are committed by minors or juveniles. Depending on the person’s age at the time the crime is committed, these types of crimes are committed. Offenses based on age are also known as ” status” offenses and include:
- Truancy (an unexcused absence from school)
- Violation of juvenile curfew laws
- Purchasing, possessing, or consuming alcohol
- Buying cigarettes or lottery tickets
Status offenses follow a legal theory known as “parens patriae,” which means “parent of the nation.” According to the theory, the state or government has the power to regulate situations that may pose a danger to minors.
What Are the Legal Consequences for Age-Based Criminal Offenses?
Most age-based offenses are relatively minor and are treated as misdemeanors or traffic violations. Violations of this type may result in a monetary fine and a jail sentence of less than one year.
More serious crimes such as juvenile felonies may be punishable by prison time, and the juvenile may be tried as an adult in some instances.
The parent of a juvenile offender may be held responsible for the criminal acts of their children in many states. Under such laws, the parent may be fined or jailed. Curfew violations and truancy are common examples of age-based offenses for which a parent may be held responsible.
What Are Some Examples of Juvenile Protection Laws?
Juvenile protection laws commonly cover these behaviors:
- Truancy (unexcused absences from school)
- Violation of curfew
- Possession, purchase, or consumption of prohibited goods, such as alcohol, cigarettes, or lottery tickets
- Disruptive behavior
- Vandalism such as graffiti that damages property
What Happens When a Minor Commits a Status Offense?
Again, most juvenile protection laws aim not to punish the minor for their behavior but rather to correct the behavior and rehabilitate the juvenile offender. Thus, some lawbreakers may be labeled as “non-offenders” to recognize that they need assistance rather than punishment. Some remedies for status offense violations include:
- Issuing a warning
- Requiring the minor to pay a fine or to compensate the victim
- Suspending the minor’s driving privileges
- Having the minor be removed from their home and placed in the care of a guardian, foster care home, or group home
- Requiring the minor to perform community service
- Requiring the minor to participate in counseling and informational sessions
For juvenile status offenses, alternative sentencing is usually used instead of incarceration. It is still possible to spend time in “juvenile hall.” However, this is usually only the case for more serious crimes or repeat offenses. Additionally, status offenses can be expunged from a person’s record somewhat easily if their record is sealed upon turning 18.
What Is Diversion of a Juvenile Offense?
Diversion is a legal mechanism that allows juvenile offenders to be directed to alternative rehabilitation programs. Diversion laws allow age-based offenders to bypass formal court proceedings. Instead of jail time, a juvenile offender might be allowed to work with a rehabilitation agency to correct the juvenile’s delinquent behavior.
The Federal Juvenile Delinquency Act of 1974 codified the diversion program created in the 1960s and 1970s. Due to the public perception of age-based offenses, diversion has become popular. Many felt that age-based status offenses were often relatively minor compared to the harsh penalties they often brought.
The juveniles who are granted diversion today are classified as “Children in Need of Supervision” (CHINS) or “Persons in Need of Supervision” (PINS). Diversion is not available in all jurisdictions and for all age-based offenses, and minors can still face formal court proceedings.
What Constitutional Rights Do Juveniles Accused of Crimes Have?
Even though juvenile cases are tried in civil court rather than criminal court, as citizens of the United States, juveniles still have constitutional rights. Juveniles will have many of the same or similar rights as adult defendants in the criminal justice system.
Some examples of those rights include:
- The Right to Counsel: In 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that minors have a right to an attorney during a court proceeding. An attorney will be appointed if a minor or their parents cannot afford one.
- Right to Notice of the Charges: A juvenile has the right to know what charges are being brought against them.
- The Right to Make a Phone Call: If the minor is already in custody and it is possible that they will be held for quite some time, then they will be allowed to make at least one phone call. In turn, their parents or guardians can contact an attorney on their behalf. Juveniles can also contact an attorney on their own behalf. If the police refuse to call a parent, guardian, or attorney, any statement the minor makes will be admissible in court. By requesting to speak with one of those parties, the minor is invoking their Miranda rights.
- Right to Confront and Cross-Examine Witnesses: Again, although juvenile cases are considered civil, not criminal matters, the minor will still have the right to cross-examine and question any witnesses who are providing testimony. This can be done through their attorney.
Furthermore, unlike their adult counterparts, minors are not entitled to a jury trial and cannot post bail.
What Should I Do If I Am a Juvenile Accused of a Crime?
A minor’s punishment will be decided by the juvenile court. Minors should be educated and rehabilitated through these consequences rather than simply punished as an adult would. Minors have a wider range of alternative sentencing options than adults.
The juvenile court may impose punishment on a minor ranging from an educational lecture to incarceration in a juvenile detention facility. This is where the slang term “juvie” comes from.
Conviction of a juvenile crime may result in the following legal consequences:
- Detainment by the juvenile court system;
- Mandatory schooling;
- Community service;
- Probation or parole;
- Significant fines; and
- Depending on the minor’s age, the conviction could remain on their permanent record for life.
A minor’s likelihood of receiving any of the penalties listed above depends on the following factors:
- The type of crime committed;
- Whether a weapon was used during the commission of the crime;
- The extent of injury or damage caused by the crime;
- The local community and court system’s reaction to the crime (in other words, their attitude toward the crime);
- Whether the minor has any prior convictions (i.e., is a repeat offender);
- Their home and family circumstances;
- If the child has a mental health condition;
- If the minor was already on probation or parole for another crime.
Do I Need to Hire a Lawyer for Help With Juvenile Protection Laws?
Getting charged with a crime based on a minor’s age can be very intimidating for minors and their parents. You may wish to contact a qualified juvenile lawyer in your area for advice on juvenile protection laws. An experienced attorney can assist you in finding alternative sentence options depending on your state’s laws. Research can also be conducted to determine if the charges can be reduced or dropped.