Juvenile vs. Adult Justice System

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What Is the Juvenile Justice System?

The juvenile justice system is a separate subdivision of the general criminal justice system. Each state and county operates a juvenile court that handles criminal cases for persons who are not yet of legal age. In most states, the age of majority is 18 years old. So, the juvenile justice system handles cases for young persons up until they are of legal age. After that age, persons are tried in the normal criminal courts.

This difference is significant, because sentencing options are often different for minors than they are for adults. This separation also prevents the problems that would occur if younger minors were to be held in detention facilities with adults.

Who Is Considered a Juvenile?

A juvenile is a person between the ages of 10 and 18 years of age. Some states set the maximum juvenile age at 16. Anyone over the state's given age limit would be considered and tried as an adult. Sometimes, when a juvenile commits a very serious crime, they can be tried as an adult even though they have not exceeded the state's age limit.

What’s the Difference between the Juvenile vs. Adult Justice System?

There are significant differences between the juvenile system when compared with the normal adult criminal system. First of all, the overall "stance" or approach of the juvenile system is different from the adult system. With most state and county juvenile courts, the focus is more on rehabilitating the juvenile defendant and keeping them functional in the community.

Therefore, juvenile justice often focuses more on alternative sentencing options for minors, such as community service programs, diversion programs, and counseling options. These are all aimed at reforming the minor while keeping them out of jail or juvenile detention facilities.

Another major difference between the two systems is that the juvenile criminal system often handles more misdemeanors and charges that are less serious. While juvenile felonies do occur, they generally do not occur as commonly as in the adult system. Lastly, record sealing or expungement is often a different process for juveniles than for adults.

Finally, juveniles do not have the same constitutional rights that adults have. For example, judges hear juvenile court hearings. That means juveniles do not have the right to a trial by jury of their peers that adults have.

What are Juvenile Court Rulings or Dispositions?

After a case is adjudicated in juvenile court proceedings, the judge will decide the case's outcome or disposition. That means the judge will decide whether the juvenile is guilty or not guilty. The judge will then decide the penalty and sentencing. Judges must always act in the best interest of the child and follow certain guidelines when deciding the sentence. The focus of the sentence is to rehabilitate the juvenile so that he or she can live a productive adult life, rather than to punish the juvenile.

Can a Minor Ever Be Tried as an Adult?

Under certain circumstasnces, a minor can be tried as an adult. This usually happens for felony crimes, especially violent crimes. In most cases, there is a prerequisite that the minor understood the consequences of their actions, and acted with full knowledge of what they were doing. Some states enforce "once and adult, always an adult", wherein a minor is always charged as an adult after their first conviction as an adult.

Do I Need a Lawyer for Help with Juvenile Criminal Matters?

Juvenile crimes present some very unique legal issues and are often handled according to very specific regulations and principles. You may wish to hire a lawyer if you or a loved one needs help with juvenile criminal matters. A qualified criminal attorney can provide legal representation, and can determine whether there are any possible defenses to raise.

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Last Modified: 08-06-2015 01:31 PM PDT

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