Juveniles and young offenders are treated differently in court than adults who commit crimes. Treatment of juvenile crime varies by state, but the consensus is that, due to their youth, the main objective of juvenile court is to deter and rehabilitate young offenders rather than punish them. Because of this, juvenile courts offer a wide variety of rehabilitation programs and generally lesser sentences than those of adult offenders.
What is Juvenile Court?
Criminal defendants under 18 are sent to juvenile court rather than regular court. In juvenile court, the defendant will not be tried before a jury. Instead, a judge will look at the evidence presented by a prosecutor and decide whether the youth committed the crime. A juvenile case is a civil case where the judge will “adjudicate” (meaning hear evidence and decide on legal issues) to determine whether the juvenile has committed a “delinquent act.”
The adjudication is similar to a criminal trial, presenting evidence from the police officers involved and hearing from other witnesses. The juvenile is considered “delinquent” if they are found to have committed a delinquent act.
What are the Punishments for a Juvenile Crime?
After deciding whether a juvenile is guilty, the judge sentences the juvenile. The juvenile system has a broad range of sentencing options, which give judges the flexibility to tailor the consequences to each offense and each offender.
Punishments are divided into two categories: incarceration and non-incarceration.
Incarceration. Incarceration means that the juvenile’s freedom is restricted. Incarceration may sound like a jail or prison sentence, but often it is not. A juvenile court judge can order confinement for a juvenile offender in many different ways.
Incarceration sentencing options include:
- Home confinement: The judge orders a juvenile to remain home for a set period (days or months). Exceptions are made for attending school, getting medical help, and other areas where the juvenile has the responsibility to be somewhere other than their house
- Placement with someone other than a parent/guardian: If the judge believes the juvenile’s living environment is contributing to the minor’s delinquency, the judge can remove the juvenile from the home environment and require the juvenile to live with a different relative or in foster care
- Juvenile detention halls: The judge can order the juvenile to stay in a detention facility for juvenile offenders. A stay can vary from short periods (less than three months) to long periods (from some months to as much as several years)
- Probation: Following time in a juvenile detention facility, the judge can order that the minor be placed on probation
- Adult detention facilities: In some instances, the judge may order the juvenile to stay in facilities for adult populations (like county jails or state prisons)
- Blended sentence: In some jurisdictions, the judge has the power to order the juvenile to spend time in a juvenile detention facility until they turn 18, and then they will be transferred to an adult jail or prison
Non-incarceration. A juvenile court judge also can offer non-incarceration consequences with rehabilitation options. These methods include:
- Verbal warning: The judge simply reprimands the juvenile in court
- Fine: Juvenile offenders can be ordered to pay civil fines. The amount is outlined in the statute that makes the action a delinquent offense
- Restitution: Convicted defendants can also be ordered to pay money to the victim to recompense them for whatever direct or indirect losses they suffered because of the defendant’s actions. This can be done instead of paying a civil fine or along with it
- Counseling: The youth can be ordered to attend mental health counseling, either one-on-one or a group program. In larger cities, there is often an ongoing group for the juvenile to join
- Community service: The court may require the defendant to complete a certain number of community service hours. This could be volunteering at a food bank, picking up litter along the highway, or performing service in one of many possible ways
- Electronic monitoring: The defendant can be required to wear a wrist or ankle bracelet at all times to verify where the defendant is during each day
- Probation: As with incarceration, probation is a possibility for non-incarceration penalties. The youth will have conditions to meet, such as obeying curfews and attending school regularly.
- The defendant will also be assigned certain conditions they must meet, including attending mental health counseling, avoiding certain individuals (such as gang members), getting evaluated by a psychiatrist and following the doctor’s recommendations, and completing anger management classes. If the defendant violates the terms of probation, they can receive a harsher disposition order, including incarceration
A judge may use a combination of incarceration and non-incarceration sentencing options when sentencing a juvenile. Each juvenile case has different facts; thus, the punishment varies from case to case.
Can Juveniles Face Adult Penalties?
Yes. If a juvenile is a repeat offender or a crime is of a nature deemed particularly serious by the court, the young offender may be charged as an adult. If this happens, they may be incarcerated in an adult prison, undergo the same sentence as an adult would, and also have the same rights as an adult.
Juveniles can be charged as adults if the judge decides that the juvenile justice system will not rehabilitate them or if state automatic transfer laws provide that the juvenile is of an age old enough for the seriousness of the crime committed and is eligible for the adult court (normally around 13-16 years of age).
The serious crimes which may lead to treatment as an adult include:
- First-degree murder
- Forcible lewd and lascivious acts on a child under 14 years of age
- Sodomy or oral copulation by force, violence, or menace.
Every state has its own set of rules and procedures for juvenile crimes and for when a crime can be charged as an adult.
Can a Juvenile Decision Be Appealed?
Like adults, juveniles have a right to appeal a criminal sentence. A court of appeal is a higher court than the adjudicating judge and can review the adjudicating judge’s decisions.
The appeals court can reverse the lower court or change various aspects of the lower court’s orders. In the context of juvenile cases, an appeal could reverse a finding of delinquency or change the terms of a sentence.
Besides filing an appeal with an appellate court, a juvenile can ask the judge who tried the case to reconsider their opinion. The judge retains authority over the case should they need to change their orders in the juvenile’s best interest. For instance, a judge may change an order to attend a particular high school if a better school becomes available for the juvenile. If the juvenile is aware of a more appropriate consequence or a better school, the juvenile can ask the court to change the order rather than wait for the judge to do it of their own accord.
Should I Have a Lawyer for a Juvenile Case?
A juvenile sentence can be serious, impacting a juvenile and their loved one. A juvenile lawyer specializing in juvenile law might be a smart choice. A skilled lawyer will provide detailed information about your case and options for routes to pursue and discuss likely outcomes.
Regardless of your circumstances, a knowledgeable juvenile attorney must help guide you through this difficult process.