In most states in the U.S., juveniles, or those who are considered by the state to be children, are treated differently under the law when they commit acts that would be considered crimes when committed by adults. There are numerous differences between the juvenile and adult justice systems, from the terms that are used, to the way offenders are treated. First, let’s look at who is considered a juvenile.

Who Is Considered a Juvenile?

As mentioned above, the laws on juvenile offenders vary by state. Many states classify juvenile offenders as those who are between the ages of ten and eighteen. In other words, anyone under eighteen is a juvenile, but you must be at least ten years of age to enter into the juvenile justice system. In other states, however, the age at which an offender is treated as an adult may be as young as sixteen or seventeen.

There are factors that affect whether an offender will be treated as a juvenile or an adult. Depending upon the seriousness of the crime, a court system may choose to treat them as an adult. For example, a person of juvenile age who has committed murder may be treated as an adult, and sent into the adult criminal justice system. 

The offender’s records are also a factor. A juvenile who has a lengthy record of delinquent activity may be tried as an adult. Other factors that may affect the decision include whether the juvenile is willing to participate in rehabilitative activities, and whether their parents are involved, and can positively impact their future behavior.

What Are the Differences Between Juvenile and Adult Court?

Although, again, there are differences from state to state, there are some general differences between juvenile and adult court. There are differences both in the terminology that is used, and in the procedures that apply.  These differences depend on whether the offender is classified as a juvenile or an adult. Some of these include:

  • Delinquent Acts v. Crimes: Juveniles are not classified as “criminals,” or considered to have committed “crimes,” but rather, “delinquent acts.” 
  • Complaint v. Petition: A complaint is filed in an adult criminal case, but a petition is filed in a juvenile offender case.
  • Adjudication v. Conviction: An offender who is tried as an adult for a crime, and whom a judge or jury determines to be guilty, is convicted of that crime. A juvenile, however, is “adjudicated delinquent.”
  • Disposition v. Sentence: A convicted adults receives a sentence as punishment, whereas a juvenile receives a “disposition,” or outcome of their hearing.

As you can see, the difference in terminology between adult and juvenile court indicates that juvenile offenders are often treated more leniently. This is because there is a strong inclination to rehabilitate juveniles, instead of merely to punish them. Adults are punished for their crimes. Juveniles, though, are given the chance to reform in the hopes that they will not continue criminal activities into adulthood and enter into the adult criminal justice system.

Some other differences between juvenile and adult court are as follows:

  • Jury trial: While an adult has the right to trial by jury, a juvenile does not. Their case will be heard by a judge, who will determine whether or not they are guilty of a delinquent act;
  • Open v. Closed Hearings: While an adult’s criminal proceedings are open to the public, a juvenile’s proceedings are closed. This furthers the court’s inclination to rehabilitate juveniles, by keeping their activities from being exposed to public record;
  • Expungement: This is the removal of the offense from the offender’s records. Rules for expungement of a juvenile record are much more lenient than those for expunging an adult’s record;
  • Rules of Procedure: In adult court, rules of criminal procedure are observed. In juvenile court, the rules of procedure may be more relaxed; and
  • Jurisdiction: An adult’s case is typically tried in the county where the crime was committed, but a juvenile’s hearing may be moved to their county of residence, if different from the one where the offense was committed.

There are some similarities between juvenile and adult trials. In both cases, the accused has the right to a trial/hearing, the right to an attorney (which includes the right to have a public defender appointed), and the right to call witnesses and to cross-examine the prosecution’s witnesses. 

In both cases, there is also the right for the offender to avoid self-incrimination and to have notice of the charges against them. The standard of proof is also the same in both juvenile and adult court: guilt must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

What are Some Methods Of Rehabilitating Juvenile Offenders?

Juveniles may be detained in a juvenile facility as part of the disposition of their case. They may also be required to perform community service and complete parole. 

The focus with juveniles is to rehabilitate them and reintegrate them into their communities in a positive way.  Families are involved in a juvenile’s case. Parents may be required to make restitution, or pay fines, for their child’s offenses. 

Do I Need a Lawyer to Help With My Juvenile Delinquency Case?

You should contact a criminal defense lawyer right away if you or your child have been accused of a delinquent act. Regardless of whether a person is tried as an adult or a juvenile, the repercussions can be severe, and representation by an attorney will ensure that you have assistance while you face them.