Generally, any crime that is committed by a person who is under the age of 18 is considered a juvenile crime. Juveniles are sometimes called minors. In a small number of states, the age cutoff for juvenile crimes is different. For example, some states have a maximum age of 16 or 17 for it to be considered a juvenile crime. A lawyer in your area will know the law of the state you are in.

The juvenile justice system is used specifically for minors who have committed a crime. When a juvenile commits a crime, they are most often tried in a different court than adults. In the juvenile justice system, there may be different sentencing options available to minors. In addition, if sentenced to time in a correctional facility, juveniles are often sent to facilities run specifically for minors with other minors.

Why Are Juveniles Sometimes Tried as Adults?

In some cases, a juvenile crime case can be moved to the adult criminal system. In certain situations, a juvenile can be tried as an adult even though they are technically still a minor. There are a variety of factors that a court may look at when deciding that a juvenile should be
tried as an adult. The most common situations where a juvenile is tried as an adult include:

  • The type or nature of the crime is so serious that it is believed that the juvenile should be treated like an adult;
  • The juvenile clearly understood the very serious nature of the crime and the consequences of the crime;
  • The juvenile has a history of committing similar serious crimes; and
  • The juvenile has been tried by a court as an adult before. This is sometimes called the “once an adult, always an adult rule.” Once a juvenile has been tried as an adult, they will likely be considered an adult in court if they commit crimes in the future.

Based on recent cases, almost all states now allow juveniles under the age of 18 to be tried in court as adults. This will depend on the circumstances and factors listed above. The specific law and rules change from state to state.

How Old Must a Juvenile Be in Order to Be Tried in Adult Court?

Again, the rules about the age of a minor being tried as an adult change depending on the state you are in. The specific minimum age when a minor can be tried as an adult changes by state. For example, in California, any juvenile over the age of 14 can be tried as an adult. However, in other states, a minor as young as 13 can be tried as an adult. Some states do not allow a minor below the age of 15 to be tried as an adult. The law in your state sets the minimum age for a juvenile to be tried as an adult.

Many things can affect the decision about whether to try a minor as an adult. A judge or court may consider many things (for example, if it was a serious criminal offense and if the minor was aware of the consequences of committing the crime). Prior juvenile criminal records are often very important in the decision.

In some states, a judge is allowed to use their own judgment and opinion to decide whether a juvenile should be tried as an adult. The decision to try a juvenile as an adult and transfer the case to adult court is sometimes called a juvenile waiver.

In What Situations Can a Juvenile Be Tried in Adult Court?

Most often when a juvenile is tried as an adult, it is because they have committed a very serious crime. For example, serious crimes include:

  • Murder (typically intentional murder and not cases of manslaughter);
  • Armed robbery (or a robbery committed with some type of weapon); and
  • Rape.

There are other common situations when a juvenile is tried as an adult. Some more common situations include:

  • Direct File – In some states, prosecutors have the power to decide whether a juvenile will be tried as an adult. When prosecutors have the ability to make the decision it is often called “prosecutorial discretion.” Prosecutorial discretion is the term used when the prosecution can use their own judgment and opinion to make a decision.
  • Statutory Exclusion – Some states have laws, called statutes, that automatically require a minor to be tried in adult court in specific cases. States that have these laws immediately transfer the case to adult court. A statutory exclusion often takes into account the minor’s age, the severity and type of crime, and whether there is a prior criminal record.

If a juvenile is tried as an adult, the case will be transferred from juvenile court to adult court.

In certain cases, if a decision is made to try a juvenile as an adult, the juvenile can file a “reverse waiver.” A reverse waiver is where a juvenile asks the court to change their decision and send the case back to juvenile court.

Are There Advantages for Juveniles Tried as Adults?

A lawyer will almost always try to prevent a juvenile case from being transferred to an adult criminal court. Most lawyers will recommend that a juvenile case stay in a juvenile court. However, if the case is transferred to adult court, there can be some advantages.

  • Juveniles in adult court will have the right to a jury trial. In juvenile court, there is no right to a jury trial.
  • A jury may sympathize with a juvenile in adult court because they are so young. Therefore, it may be hard for a jury to convict a minor.
  • Juveniles could possibly get lighter sentences in adult court. Remember, this is often not the case. Sentences will depend on the state and court. In juvenile crime cases tried in juvenile court, the penalty is almost always less serious.

Are There Disadvantages for Juveniles Tried as Adults?

There can be many disadvantages for a juvenile tried as an adult. As a result, lawyers almost always argue that the case should not be transferred to adult court. Some of the disadvantages for juveniles to be tried in adult courts include:

  • The juvenile can get a more severe sentence. This will depend on the specific crime committed. Being sentenced to life is a possibility, but it is very rare. Juvenile court sentences have a goal of rehabilitating the juvenile. The sentences are not as serious as in adult court.
  • Many sentences and treatment options that are available in juvenile court are not available in adult court. Rehabilitation and counseling are very common sentences. If in adult court, the juvenile may have to serve time in adult jail or prison instead of a juvenile detention center.
  • A conviction in adult court can have worse consequences on a person’s life after jail. In juvenile court, there may be options to limit the access to juvenile criminal records.
  • Adult criminal records are more difficult to seal and expunge. In juvenile court, sealing records or getting one expunged may be much easier. Also, many juvenile records do not transfer to adult records once the person reaches the age of 18.

What Are Some Penalties for a Juvenile Crime?

Normally, juvenile crime tried in a juvenile court leads to lower sentences or penalties. These can include short jail time in a juvenile detention center, smaller fines, and sometimes community service or alternative sentences. Alternative sentences could include things like counseling or rehabilitation. House arrest is also sometimes an option for juveniles when the crime is not very serious.

Other sentencing options such as parole, probation, or community service programs are more likely in juvenile court.

If the juvenile is tried as an adult, it can lead to penalties that are much more serious. The jail time and fines will likely be much higher.

Should I Hire a Lawyer for a Juvenile Criminal Law Case?

It is recommended that you contact a criminal law attorney in your area that specializes in juvenile criminal law cases. If a juvenile has committed a crime, the consequences could be very serious. A lawyer can give you advice on how to best handle your case. They can also represent the juvenile in any court appearances.

A qualified lawyer can review the specific facts of your case and provide legal guidance. A specialized lawyer can help you try to keep the case in juvenile court, explain any possible defenses and talk to you about sentencing alternatives.