Juvenile delinquency is unlawful conduct by minors, meaning those under the age of 18 in most states (the age is 17 in Georgia, Michigan, Missouri, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina, Texas and Wisconsin), for which there are penalties.
Some of these acts of delinquency are acts that would be criminal if committed by an adult, and punishable under criminal laws. Other acts, while still unlawful, may be more minor in nature. For example, minors who commit status offenses such as truancy (skipping school) may be subject to penalties within the legal system.
When minors exhibit recurring instances of this type of behavior, they may become known as “juvenile delinquents.”
As was stated above, some acts of juvenile delinquency are associated with less serious unlawful acts. These are often referred to as status offenses, or classes of crimes which apply only to certain class of people (in this case, minors). Examples of these types of acts include (but not limited to):
- Truancy (skipping school);
- Underage drinking/purchase of alcohol; and/or
- Underage smoking/purchase of cigarettes.
However, there are also many instances where juveniles commit acts that would classified as crimes if they were 18 years of age or older. Less serious crimes fall into the category of misdemeanors, while more serious crimes are usually classified as felonies. Some other crimes committed by minors that are less serious in nature include acts such as:
More serious crimes that may be committed by minors include sexual abuse, drug-related offenses and murder.
Regardless of how crimes are classified for adults, minors are not usually tried as adults in the criminal legal system. Although they may be, for very serious crimes, minor crimes and status offenses are usually handled by the juvenile court system.
It is also possible for a minor to be treated as a non-offender if their delinquency is seen as a result of their negative home environment.
A system of juvenile courts is in place to handle minors who have committed unlawful acts. These courts conduct “adjudications (as opposed to adult “trials”)” to review the minor’s acts and determine an appropriate penalty, referred to as a “disposition (as opposed to a “sentence”).”
The juvenile justice system reflects the idea that, as a society, we accept that minors are less capable of understanding their actions and the consequences thereof. It also reflects that we choose to try to rehabilitate minors, rather than send them into an adult prison system. The rates of those who go into prison again after being sent once are high, and there is an interest in not putting children into that cycle.
Juvenile court dispositions, therefore, often give penalties other than some form of incarceration, although it is possible for minors who are adjudicated in the juvenile court to be sent to juvenile detention. Example of alternative penalties include:
- Monetary fines (for parents);
- Court costs for parents;
- Counseling to help minors understand their actions;
- Apology letters written by the minor;
- Citations which will remain on the juvenile record; and/or
- Diversionary programs, which are similar to probation and often involve electronic monitoring of the minor in an attempt to keep them from getting into more trouble.
Juvenile courts may handle both status offenses (offenses based on age such as underage drinking), and crimes committed by minors that would be tried in the adult legal system if the offender were 18 or older. In the case of very serious crimes, like murder, minors are sometimes tried as adults and penalized accordingly.
There are a number of factors that can increase the likelihood of a minor becoming involved in delinquent behavior. While studies can show there a wide range of influences, typically certain parenting situations will lead to a minor’s delinquency.
For example, when parents are absent of neglectful and their children’s activities are not monitored, the children are much more likely to engage in delinquent behavior. Other children may rebel with delinquent acts against overly disciplinarian parents.
The peers a minor associates with are also very likely to influence whether a child becomes involved in delinquent behavior. Delinquent siblings may be a factor. But there are also many other factors, including issues with mental health, the area they grew up (e.g. area with high gang activity), or any problems the child might have with drug use/addiction.
Juvenile delinquency can sometimes involve fairly complex legal concepts. You may wish to hire a lawyer if you or a loved one of yours needs legal assistance. A qualified juvenile lawyer can help provide legal advice and representation during the legal proceedings.
Also, your lawyer will be able to help determine whether any alternative sentencing options may be available. It is important to handle these matters carefully, not only to prevent further delinquent acts, but to rehabilitate minors and prevent their actions as minors from ruining their futures as adults.