What Happens In Juvenile Court Cases


Juvenile courts were created due to society's recognition that younger offenders may benefit from having their cases heard in a court system that is focused primarily on rehabilitation as opposed to punishment. Although a juvenile offender's disposition may include elements of punishment, and may potentially include incarceration, the ideal of the juvenile justice system is to provide a structure that will help a juvenile offender become a law-abiding adult.

What Is A Juvenile Offender

A juvenile offender is a minor who is charged with committing a criminal offense but is too young to be tried as an adult, or a minor charged with a status offense, conduct that would not be a crime if committed by an adult. The age at which a person can be tried as an adult varies from state to state, but in most states juvenile courts may hear cases involving minors for offenses that occur prior to their eighteenth birthday. In seven states (Georgia, Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri, South Carolina, Texas and Wisconsin), juvenile courts may hear cases involving juveniles for offenses that occur prior to their seventeenth birthday, with offenders over the age of seventeen tried as adults. In New York and North Carolina, juvenile court jurisdiction ends on a minor's sixteenth birthday, with older teens tried as adults.

Although as a general rule, minors who are within the age range for juvenile court will have their cases heard in a juvenile court, minors charged with more serious offenses may be tried in adult court. Depending upon the criminal charge and state law, a that may happen automatically or after a hearing in juvenile court.

What Happens in Juvenile Court

When a minor goes to juvenile court, the process may be less formal than that which is followed in an adult court. Although a juvenile who is charged with a serious offense may have pretrial proceedings, a trial and a sentencing that resembles what would happen in a regular criminal court, juveniles who are charged with less serious offenses may have their cases handled with considerably less formality. Due to the rehabilitative purpose of the juvenile justice system, juvenile court proceedings are usually closed to the public and a juvenile offender's name will often be kept confidential.

As the goal of juvenile court is rehabilitation, juvenile courts use different language than adult courts. A juvenile will typically be referred to as an offender, charged with an offense or delinquent act as opposed to a crime. If a juvenile court makes a finding of that a minor is guilty or responsible for an offense, the outcome of the case is normally referred to as an adjudication as opposed to a criminal conviction.

Status Offenses in Juvenile Court

A juvenile status offense is an offense that by its nature cannot be committed by an adult, and that cannot be charged in adult court. For example:

  • Running Away from Home - A minor who leaves home without parental permission may potentially come under juvenile court jurisdiction as a runaway.

  • Juvenile Curfew Violations - Although curfew laws may vary considerably, they generally prohibit a minor from being in public during specified hours of the night unless are traveling for legitimate school- or work-related activity, present as part of a religious activity, are involved in an emergency situation, or are in the company of a parent or legal guardian.

  • Truancy - The habitual, unexcused absence from school by a minor who is subject to a state's mandatory school enrollment laws;

  • Incorrigibility - States may allow for the classification of a juvenile as incorrigible, unruly, ungovernable, or beyond the control of their parents or guardians, potentially allowing the court to take jurisdiction over a minor who has not committed any identifiable criminal offenses.

Some offenses that have an element of age may be tried in adult court. For example, alcohol offenses directed at minors such as minor in possession of alcohol, underage consumption of alcohol, or operating a vehicle after consuming alcohol, may be chargeable in adult court against anybody under the age of 21.

What are the Rights of Minors Charge in Juvenile Court

Due to the rehabilitative focus of juvenile courts, juvenile offenders do not have the right to all of the protections extended to adult criminal defendants. States differ in their approach to juvenile court. Some states permit trial by jury for juvenile offenders, while other states do not provide a right to a jury trial in juvenile court. The rules of evidence may be relaxed in juvenile court proceedings, with the court being permitted to hear and consider evidence that would be excluded from evidence in an adult's criminal trial.

How are Charges Handled in Juvenile Court

In a process akin to a deferral in a regular criminal court, a juvenile charge may be benched, meaning that the court holds the charge in abeyance while the juvenile goes through a period of court supervision, possibly including requirements such as community service, drug testing or counseling. If the minor successfully completes requirements set by the court, the case is dismissed. Other juveniles may be adjudicated to have committed an offense but be placed on juvenile probation, under the supervision of juvenile probation officers who monitor their progress and can initiate probation violation proceedings if the juvenile appears to be heading in the wrong direction.

If a juvenile court finds that a minor has committed an offense, whether by plea or following a trial, the juvenile court has considerable discretion to tailor the disposition of the case to match the needs of the young offender. That discretion does not necessarily involve a lesser sentence than might be received in adult court, and juveniles who have been adjudicated delinquent may potentially be sentenced to longer period of incarceration than could be imposed upon an adult who committed a similar offense.

The juvenile justice system includes juvenile detention centers, some of which are very similar to adult prisons, where juveniles may be committed following an adjudication for a serious offense. Juvenile detention is possible for lesser offenses, particularly where the juvenile is a repeat offender. A juvenile who is tried as an adult may be initially sentenced to a juvenile detention center and later, upon reaching adulthood, be transferred to an adult prison.

What Happens if a Juvenile is Charged as an Adult

A juvenile offender who has committed a serious offense may be prosecuted as an adult. The exact process under which adult prosecution may occur will depend upon state law. The transfer of a juvenile to adult court is usually referred to as a waiver, meaning that the juvenile court has waived its jurisdiction over the minor's case.

  • Permissive Waiver - In some states, it is necessary for a prosecutor to bring a motion before the juvenile court, asking that juvenile court jurisdiction be waived and that the minor be transferred to an adult court. After a juvenile court hearing in which the prosecution presents evidence in support of a waiver, the juvenile court decides whether or not the case should be resolved in juvenile court or transferred to an adult court.

  • Mandatory Waiver - In other states waiver may be automatic based upon the nature of the offense, or it may be necessary for a court to make specific findings in order to retain jurisdiction over the minor's case.

  • Hybrid Systems - Some states follow a hybrid system under which a minor may be tried in juvenile court, but potentially sentenced as an adult.

Many states have passed laws that allow prosecutors to file adult charges against juveniles for specified serious offenses, without having to either go through a juvenile court or seek a waiver.

A juvenile whose case is tried in adult court receives all of the rights granted to an adult defendant in a criminal prosecution, including the right to a jury.

Juvenile status offenses may not be transferred to or heard in an adult court.

Sentencing of Juveniles in Adult Court

If a juvenile is convicted in an adult criminal court, it is possible for the juvenile to be sentenced as an adult. However, some states give criminal courts different or additional sentencing options for juveniles who are convicted of crimes, potentially including:

  • Sentencing as a Juvenile - Some states grant the judge the discretion to sentence a juvenile defendant as a juvenile, even though the juvenile was convicted in adult court.

  • Hybrid Sentencing - Some states give the judge the discretion to impose a juvenile sentence but, in the event that the juvenile violates the terms of probation, the juvenile may be resentenced as an adult.

The availability of these options varies by state, and sometimes is further restricted based upon the juvenile's conviction charge.

Minors who are convicted of crimes other than homicide may not be sentenced to life without parole. Minors convicted of homicide may potentially be sentenced to life without parole, but the court must hold a hearing and find that to be an appropriate disposition. Minors may not be sentenced to death.

Are Juvenile Court Records Open to the Public

The availability of a juvenile record as a public record depends upon state law, and can vary significantly depending upon such factors as subsequent criminal activity or the type of crime committed.

Sex Offender Registries

A juvenile who is convicted of certain sex offenses may be required to register as a sex offender, and some states may include minors in public sex offender registries. The requirement for registration may potentially continue into adulthood, without regard to the juvenile's age at the time of offense.

Records of Juvenile Prosecutions and Dispositions

The manner in which states handle juvenile records varies. Juvenile records that do not include adjudications are typically automatically sealed or expunged once the minor reaches adulthood. For minors whose juvenile records include adjudications, the most common approaches are:

  • Automatic Sealing - Once a juvenile passes an age specified by law, the record is automatically sealed.

  • Conditional Sealing - A juvenile court record may be automatically sealed once the minor reaches a specified age unless the minor has been convicted of an adult offense before reaching that age, in which case the record becomes public.

  • No Automatic Sealing of Records - In order to seal a juvenile court record, a person with a juvenile court adjudication must file a motion with the juvenile court following a statutory waiting period or after reaching a specified age. The person may be ineligible to have the record sealed, or may potentially be denied an order sealing the record, if the person is convicted of an adult offense before the petition is heard.

People who live in states that do not automatically seal juvenile court records should petition to have their records sealed or expunged as soon as they are eligible to file the petition.

Copyright © 2016 Aaron Larson, All rights reserved. No portion of this article may be reproduced without the express written permission of the copyright holder. If you use a quotation, excerpt or paraphrase of this article, except as otherwise authorized in writing by the author of the article you must cite this article as a source for your work and include a link back to the original article from any online materials that incorporate or are derived from the content of this article.

This article was last reviewed or amended on Aug 3, 2016.