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Juvenile vs. Adult Criminal System

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What is the Juvenile Justice System?

The juvenile justice system handles criminal cases for youth under the age of majority, which is 18 in most states. Most cases involving juveniles are tried in juvenile-specific courts. However, there are some exceptions, and those exceptions along with everyone over legal age are tried in standard criminal courts for adults. One of the features setting the juvenile system apart from the adult system, is that the sentencing differences between adult and juvenile cases is significant.

Who Is Considered a Juvenile, and Can They Be Tried as an Adult?

In most states, a juvenile is between ages 10 and 18 years of age, and in some states the age cap is set at 16 years of age. As previously mentioned, exceptions exist for who is considered a juvenile. In particular, a juvenile who commits a crime that is very serious in nature may be tried as an adult, regardless of age.

In most of these cases, the minor is found to have full mental capacity in understanding their actions and the consequences to follow. Some states use the “once an adult, always an adult,” premise wherein a minor will always be charged as an adult after their first conviction as an adult.

How Does the Juvenile Criminal System Differ from the Adult System?

The juvenile court system focuses more on the rehabilitation of juveniles, and offers more sentencing options as compared to the adult criminal system. Some of these options keep youth out of jail and within the community, usually in community service, diversion, and counseling programs. There are variations between states, but generally:

  • Juveniles are prosecuted for delinquent acts rather than crimes (unless it is a serious offense and the minor will be tried as an adult).
  • Juveniles don’t have a right to a public trial by jury. Rather, a judge hears the evidence in an adjudication hearing and rules on whether the juvenile committed a delinquent act.
  • If the juvenile is found to be delinquent, appropriate action in the form of rehabilitation will be taken. In the adult criminal system, action is taken that is intended to punish the defendant.
  • Juvenile courts are more informal than the adult court system, and may have more lenient rules regarding courtroom procedure.

What are Some Similarities Between the Two Systems?

Though the two systems have several differences, there are some similarities. The most significant being that both systems retain many of the same rights, including:

  • The right to an attorney
  • The right to confront and cross-examine witnesses
  • The privilege against self-incrimination
  • The right to have notice of the charges
  • There must be proof beyond a reasonable doubt for a guilty conviction

What are Juvenile Court Rulings or Dispositions?

After the adjudicated hearing, the judge will decide the disposition of the case as to whether the juvenile is guilty or not guilty of committing a delinquent act. If guilty, the judge will take the juvenile’s best interests into consideration, and follow certain guidelines to provide a sentence with a focus on rehabilitation.

Do I Need an Attorney for My Juvenile Delinquency Case?

If you or your loved one are accused of committing a delinquent act, you should contact a criminal defense lawyer immediately. The juvenile justice system can present unique challenges not normally seen in the adult criminal system, and having an attorney represent your best interests is imperative.

Photo of page author Sarah Tipton

, LegalMatch Legal Writer

Last Modified: 09-28-2017 03:05 PM PDT

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