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Juvenile Delinquency: How the Juvenile Justice System Works

Each state has special courts -- usually called juvenile courts -- to deal with juveniles who have been accused of violating a criminal statute. The proceedings are civil as opposed to criminal. So, instead of being formally charged with a crime, youth offenders are accused of committing a delinquent act.

A juvenile case gets started when a prosecutor or probation officer (PO) files a civil petition, charging the youth with violating a criminal statute and asking that the court determine that the youth is delinquent. If the charges are proved and a delinquency determination is made, the youth offender comes under the court’s broad powers. At that point, the juvenile court has the authority to do what it considers to be in the best interest of the youth.

Often, the juvenile court retains legal authority over the juvenile for a set period of time -- until the youth becomes an adult, or sometimes even longer.


To be eligible for juvenile court, a young person must be a considered a "juvenile" under state law. In most states, the maximum age for using juvenile court is 18. In a few states the age is 16 or 17, and in one (Wyoming) the maximum age is set at 19.

States also set lower age limits for juvenile court eligibility. Most states consider kids under the age of 7 to be incapable of determining the difference between right and wrong, or forming a "guilty mind." So, kids under the age of seven are usually excused from responsibility for acts they commit. Instead, moms and dads may have to pay compensation to anyone victimized by the acts of a young child. In some cases, the court will find a parent unfit to care for a youngster who has committed wrongdoing and will place the youngster with relatives or foster moms and dads. Whether kids between the ages of seven and 14 can form a guilty mind is usually left up to the Juvenile Court Judge. If the judge feels that the youngster was capable of forming criminal intent, the youngster will be sent to juvenile court.

Most states regard kids 14 and older as capable of forming criminal intent, so the majority of cases involving young people from 14 to 18 years of age are adjudicated in juvenile court. In certain circumstances, a youth can be tried in adult criminal court.

Cases in Juvenile Court—

Not all cases heard in juvenile court are delinquency cases (those involving the commission of a crime). There are two other types of cases: dependency cases and status offenses. Different procedures typically apply to all three types of juvenile court cases.

• Cases involving status offenses. A status offense is a violation that only applies to juveniles. Examples include truancy (skipping school), curfew violations, running away, and underage drinking.
• Juvenile delinquency cases. These cases involve juveniles who have committed crimes -- meaning that if the crime had been committed by an adult, the matter would be tried in regular criminal court. But the procedures in juvenile court differ significantly from those in adult criminal court.
• Juvenile dependency cases. Cases involving juveniles who are abused or neglected by their moms and dads or guardians -- called "juvenile dependency" cases -- are also heard in juvenile court. In a juvenile dependency case, the Juvenile Court Judge will ultimately decide whether or not a juvenile should be removed from a problematic home environment.

Common Offenses and Trends—

Roughly half of all youth arrests are made for theft, simple assault, drug abuse, disorderly conduct, and curfew violations, according to the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. In an average year, only about 3% of cases heard in juvenile court involved violent offenses like robbery, rape, murder, and aggravated assault.

Historically, the vast majority of juvenile court cases have involved male offenders. But the number of females entering the juvenile justice system has been on the rise in recent years -- in an average year, females accounted for 27% of all youth facing proceedings in juvenile courts in the U.S.


When a youth is suspected of violating a criminal statute, the procedures are very different from those used in adult criminal court. Most significantly, the police, prosecutors, juvenile court intake officials, and juvenile court judges all have broad discretion to take more informal steps in handling the case. As a result, many young offenders never reach the point of a formal adjudicatory hearing.

Likewise, the constitutional rights of youth are different from those of adults who have been accused of committing a crime. For example, although young people have the right to an attorney at an adjudicatory hearing, in most states they do not have the right to have their case heard by a jury.

Some juvenile cases are transferred to adult court in a procedure called a "waiver." Typically, juvenile cases that are subject to waiver involve serious offenses, like rape or murder, or youth who have been in trouble before. Youth have a right to a hearing to determine if their case should be transferred to adult court.

Sentencing Options—

Juvenile courts have a broad range of sentencing options (usually called "disposition orders") if they find that a youth is delinquent. Courts can confine the youth in a variety of ways -- from sending the juvenile to a traditional juvenile detention facility to placing the youth under house arrest. More importantly, juvenile courts can order a whole range of punishments that do not involve confinement -- including counseling, curfews, and probation. 

When a youth is suspected of violating a criminal statute, the procedure that's followed is very different from that used for adult offenders in a typical criminal case. All states have created a special juvenile court system for juveniles who get into trouble with the law. And although some juveniles are ultimately judged to be delinquent by these juvenile courts, the different players in a typical juvenile case -- including police officers, prosecutors, and judges -- have broad discretion to fashion other outcomes.

Although the procedure for juvenile delinquency cases varies from state to state, the following is a rundown of a typical juvenile case.

How Police Deal With Youth—

There are a number of ways that a juvenile might come into contact with law enforcement over the alleged violation of a criminal statute. Some juveniles are arrested by police, while others are referred to the police by moms and dads or school officials. Regardless of how the police get wind of a potential juvenile case, a police officer may decide to deal with the youth in several ways.

• Hold the juvenile until a parent comes. Sometimes the police officer will detain the juvenile, issue a warning, and then release the juvenile to the custody of a parent or guardian.
• Issue a warning. The police officer can detain the juvenile, issue a warning, and then let the juvenile go. This is often referred to as the "counseled and released" alternative.
• Refer to juvenile court. The police officer may also place the youth in custody and refer the case to juvenile court.

When Cases Go to Juvenile Court—

Once the police officer refers a case to juvenile court, a prosecutor or juvenile court intake officer (often a PO) takes over. That person may decide to dismiss the case, handle the matter informally, or file formal charges (called "petitioning the case").

In deciding how to proceed, the prosecutor or intake officer will typically consider:

• the ability of the juvenile's moms and dads to control his or her behavior
• the youth's age
• the youth's gender (males are more likely to be charged than females)
• the youth's past record
• the youth's social history, and
• the severity of the offense
• the strength of the evidence in the case

In an average year, about 20% of the cases referred to a juvenile court intake officer are dismissed and another 25% or so are handled informally. The remaining cases go through formal proceedings.

Informal Proceedings—

If the prosecutor or PO decides to proceed with the youth's case informally, usually the juvenile must appear before a PO or Juvenile Court Judge. Although no formal charge is entered against the youth, he or she will usually be required to do one or more of the following:

• attend after-school classes
• attend counseling
• enter probation
• listen to a stern lecture
• pay a fine
• perform community service work, or
• repay the victim for damages

If the youth's abuse or neglect is suspected as part of the case, the juvenile court judge may initiate proceedings to remove the juvenile from parental or guardian custody.

Formal Proceedings—

If the prosecutor or PO decides to proceed formally, he or she will file a petition in juvenile court. The juvenile is then "arraigned" (formally charged) in front of a juvenile court judge or referee. In some cases, the court may decide to send the youth to adult criminal court. 

The court will also determine whether the juvenile should be detained or released for the time period before the initial hearing. In about 80% of cases processed formally in juvenile court, the judge allows a juvenile to remain at home while awaiting the hearing.

If the juvenile's case remains in juvenile court, one of three things may happen:

• The Juvenile Court Judge "diverts" the case. When a Juvenile Court Judge diverts a case, the judge retains jurisdiction over the case while the youth undergoes a recommended program (such as counseling) or performs some act (such as community service or payment of restitution). If the youth doesn't fulfill these obligations, the court may reinstate formal charges.
• The Juvenile Court Judge holds an adjudicatory hearing. If the case goes to trial (called an "adjudicatory hearing" in a juvenile case), both sides present evidence and the attorneys argue the case (much like a criminal trial). In most states, the hearing is before a Juvenile Court Judge, not a jury. At the conclusion of the hearing, the judge will determine whether the youth is delinquent. A delinquency ruling is called "sustaining the petition."
• The juvenile enters into a plea agreement. Often, a plea agreement hinges on the youth's compliance with certain conditions. For example, as part of a plea deal, a youth may need to attend counseling, obey curfews, or reimburse the victim for damages.

If a delinquency ruling is made, a PO will evaluate the youth, order psychological examination or diagnostic tests if necessary, and then make recommendations at the disposition hearing (which is similar to a sentencing hearing in criminal court). The Juvenile Court Judge then decides what is in the best interest of the youth, and may order any number of things as part of the disposition, including:

• confinement in a juvenile detention facility
• counseling
• probation
• reimbursement of the victim, or

The Juvenile Court Judge may also order the youth to appear in court periodically (called post-disposition hearings) so that the judge can monitor the youth's behavior and progress.

Constitutional Rights—

Juveniles in juvenile court delinquency proceedings do not have the same constitutional rights as those given to adults in regular criminal court cases. In fact, prior to the 1960s young people had few due process rights at all. But as juvenile court proceedings have become more formal, states and courts have strengthened youths' constitutional rights.

Below is a summary of the due process rights that do and do not apply to youth in delinquency proceedings. Some of these rights derive from U.S. Supreme Court cases -- and therefore apply to all states -- while other rights vary by state.

• No (or limited) right to a jury trial. Most states do not allow jury trials in juvenile delinquency cases. The few states that do allow jury trials often limit them to only certain types of juvenile cases.
• No right to bail. Youth do not have a constitutional right to seek bail. But many young people are released to their moms and dads or guardians prior to arraignment in juvenile court.
• Probable cause needed to search a juvenile. Police officers must have probable cause to search and arrest a juvenile who is suspected of violating a criminal statute. However, public officials in quasi-parental relationships with juveniles -- like school personnel -- need only "reasonable suspicion" of wrongdoing rather than probable cause to temporarily detain and search juveniles.
• Right to a phone call. Usually, a juvenile is allowed to make at least one phone call if they are in custody and not likely to be released quickly. The juvenile can call a parent or guardian, who in turn can contact an attorney. Or the juvenile can contact an attorney directly. By asking to speak with a parent or attorney, the juvenile invokes his or her Miranda rights. So, if police ignore the juvenile's request to consult a parent or attorney, anything the juvenile says to the police after that will likely be inadmissible in juvenile court.
• The privilege against self-incrimination. Juveniles in juvenile court proceedings have a right to assert their Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination. This means that a juvenile cannot be forced to testify against him or herself.
• The right to confront and cross-examine witnesses. Even though a youth adjudication hearing is not a formal criminal trial, a juvenile has the right to confront and cross-examine witnesses -- meaning the juvenile gets a chance to question (through an attorney) the people called to testify by the state, and to challenge their testimony.
• The right to counsel. In 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court (in a case called In re Gault) ruled that juveniles have the right to an attorney in juvenile proceedings. If a juvenile cannot afford an attorney, he or she has the right to be represented by a state-appointed attorney.
• The right to have charges proved beyond a reasonable doubt. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that if a youth faces incarceration or adjudication as "delinquent" as a result of juvenile court proceedings, then the state must prove the charges against the youth "beyond a reasonable doubt." If those penalties are not at issue, the state need only prove the charges by a "preponderance of evidence" standard.
• The right to notice of the charges. In re Gault also requires that a youth be provided with notice of the criminal charges he or she faces.

Juveniles Tried in Adult Court—

Some juvenile cases get transferred to adult criminal court through a process called a "waiver" -- when a judge waives the protections that juvenile court provides. Usually, juvenile cases that are subject to waiver involve more serious crimes, or juveniles who have been in trouble before. Although being tried in adult court gives a youth more constitutional protections, it has distinct disadvantages too -- including the potential for a more severe sentence and the possibility of serving time in an adult correctional facility. 

Below you'll find an outline of the waiver process, factors the court will consider in deciding whether to transfer a youth to adult court, and the pros and cons of trying young people in adult court.

Cases Eligible for Waiver—

In most states, a youth offender must be at least 16 to be eligible for waiver to adult court. But, in a number of states, juveniles as young as 13 could be subjected to a waiver petition. And a few states allow kids of any age to be tried as adults for certain types of crimes, such as homicide. The current trend among states is to lower the minimum age of eligibility for waiver into adult court. This is due in part to public perception that youth crime is on the rise, and offenders are getting younger.

Factors that might lead a court to grant a waiver petition and transfer a juvenile case to adult court include:

• Past rehabilitation efforts for the youth have been unsuccessful.
• The youth has a lengthy juvenile record.
• The youth is charged with a particularly serious offense.
• The juvenile is older.
• Youth services would have to work with the youth offender for a long time.

Waiver Petition—

There are three ways that transfer proceedings can usually begin -- the most common is through the prosecutor's request. But the juvenile court judge can also initiate transfer proceedings. And some state laws require that young people be tried as adults in certain types of cases, like homicide. (To learn more about state laws requiring youth to be tried as adults, see the "Automatic Transfer Laws and Reverse Transfer Hearings" section below.)

If the prosecutor or Juvenile Court Judge seeks to transfer the case to adult court, the juvenile is entitled to a hearing and representation by an attorney. This hearing is called the waiver hearing, fitness hearing, or certification hearing. Usually, the prosecutor must show probable cause that the youth actually committed the charged offense.

If the prosecutor has established probable cause, the Juvenile Court Judge must then decide on the juvenile's chances at rehabilitation. To make this decision, the judge will often hear evidence on the juvenile's:

• willingness to get treatment in the juvenile system
• juvenile court record
• background

If the Juvenile Court Judge transfers the juvenile case to adult criminal court, the case starts there at the beginning -- typically with the arraignment (formal, in-court notice of charges against the youth).

Automatic Transfer Laws and Reverse Transfer Hearings—

Some states have "automatic transfer" laws that require juvenile cases to be transferred to adult criminal court if both of the following are true.

• The charges involve a serious or violent offense, such as rape or murder.
• The offender is a certain age or older (usually 16).

Young people subject to an automatic transfer can still request a transfer hearing in juvenile court. During that hearing -- called a reverse waiver or reverse transfer hearing -- the youth (through an attorney) has the burden of convincing the Juvenile Court Judge to reverse the automatic transfer and allow the youth to be tried in juvenile court.

Pros and Cons Adult Criminal Court—

Usually, youth and their attorneys fight to keep a case in juvenile court. But there are also advantages to being tried in adult criminal court. Here are some of the pros and cons for young people whose cases are waived to adult court.

Advantages of Adult Court—

Sometimes, it can be advantageous for a youth to be tried in adult court. Here are some reasons why:

• In some jurisdictions where dockets and jails are crowded, the court may be inclined to dispose of the youth's case more quickly and impose a lighter sentence.
• Juries in adult court may be more sympathetic to a juvenile.
• Juveniles have the right to a jury trial in adult court (most states do not provide a right to a jury in juvenile court).

Disadvantages of Adult Court—

Some of the disadvantages for youth in adult court include the following:

• A conviction in adult criminal court carries more social stigma than a juvenile court judgment does.
• Adult criminal records are harder to seal than juvenile court records -- sealing or "expunging" records makes them unavailable to the public.
• Judges in adult court do not have the wide range of punishment and treatment options that are available to juvenile court judges -- such as imposing a curfew or ordering counseling instead of jail time.
• The youth is subject to more severe sentences, including life sentences.
• The youth may have to serve time in adult jail or prison, rather than in juvenile detention centers.

Sentencing Options—

Juvenile courts have a wide range of sentencing options (usually called "disposition orders") that they can impose on juveniles or youth offenders who are found to be "delinquent" (that is, finding that the juvenile violated a criminal law). Typically, disposition options fall into two camps: incarceration and non-incarceration. One non-incarceration option in particular -- probation -- forms the backbone of the juvenile justice system. Read on to learn about the different kinds of sentencing options used in juvenile court, the ins and outs of probation, and whether a disposition order can be appealed or changed. 


After adjudicating a youth as delinquent, a juvenile court may order incarceration as a penalty. But methods used to confine young people are often very different from those used in cases involving adult offenders (when jail and prison are the fallback options). Here are some ways that judges can order confinement for a youth who has been found delinquent:

• Adult jail. In some cases, a Juvenile Court Judge can send a youth to adult facilities like county jail or state prison.
• Home confinement/house arrest. The Juvenile Court Judge can order the juvenile to remain at home, with exceptions (attend school, work, counseling, and so on).
• Youth and adult jail. In some jurisdictions, judges can send delinquent young people to a juvenile facility, and then order transfer to an adult facility once the youth reaches the age of majority. When a juvenile is ordered to serve time in both a juvenile and adult facility, it is called a "blended sentence."
• Juvenile hall/juvenile detention facility. The Juvenile Court Judge can send the juvenile to a juvenile detention facility. These facilities are designed for short-term stays.
• Placement with someone other than a parent or guardian. The Juvenile Court Judge can require that the juvenile live with a relative or in a group or foster home.
• Probation after juvenile hall. Some juveniles are sent to a juvenile facility for a few months and are then put on probation afterward.
• Secured juvenile facilities. These facilities are designed for longer term stays. Youth can be sent to secured facilities (sometimes called "camps") for months or years.

Non-Incarceration Options—

Juvenile court judges often have broad discretion to fashion a sentence or rehabilitation program that fits the needs of the juvenile. A disposition order may include options other than confinement, including:

• Community service. Youth may be ordered to work a certain number of hours in service to the local community.
• Counseling. Often, judges require youth to attend counseling as part of a disposition order.
• Electronic monitoring. Youth may be required to wear a wrist or ankle bracelet that verifies their location at all times.
• Fine. The juvenile may be required to pay a fine to the government or pay compensation to the victim.
• Probation. Judges often order young people to enter probation after a delinquency finding. (To learn more about probation, see the "Probation" section, just below.)
• Verbal warning. The sentence for the youth can be as simple as a verbal reprimand.

In creating a disposition order, juvenile court judges can order any of the above options alone or in combination. For example, a delinquent juvenile might need to pay a fine, attend counseling, and perform community service as a penalty for one offense.


Probation is a program of supervision in which the juvenile's freedom is limited and activities restricted. Probation has been called the "workhorse" of the juvenile justice system -- according to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, probation is the most common disposition in juvenile cases that receive a juvenile court sanction. In an average year, about half of all juveniles judged to be delinquent receive probation as the most restrictive sentence.

Specific terms of probation vary widely from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, and from case to case. Typically, a youth must obey both the general terms of probation and any additional requirements tailored to the particular case. The court usually expects that moms and dads or a guardian will help the youth fulfill the conditions of the probation order. These conditions can include community service, attendance at a certain school, counseling, curfews, and orders that the youth not associate with certain individuals (as in cases involving suspected gang members). As part of probation, some young people must attend special day treatment programs that provide additional monitoring and educational services -- including anger management classes, social skills building, and substance abuse education.

Probation Officers (PO)—

A youth placed on probation is assigned to a PO who monitors the youth's compliance with the court's disposition order. The youth meets with the PO periodically (weekly or twice month, for example), and the youth's moms and dads or guardian must report any probation violations to the PO. In this way, the PO and the moms and dads work together to help the youth fulfill the conditions of probation.

Probation Violations—

If a youth is suspected of violating a probation condition, the PO notifies the court -- usually by filing a "violation of probation" notice. If the Juvenile Court Judge finds that the juvenile has indeed violated the terms of his or her probation, the court can revoke the probation option and impose a harsher sentence -- such as incarceration at a detention facility.

Appeals and Post-Disposition Changes—

Just as adults can appeal a sentence handed down in criminal court, young people have the right to appeal (or ask a higher court to overturn) a juvenile court's disposition order after a delinquency finding.

Youth can also ask a court to modify an order if circumstances change -- this is called a "post-disposition" change. Juvenile court judges have broad discretion to change their original orders in order to better serve the youth's needs and best interests. For example, a judge may order that the youngster change living arrangements if a better option becomes available.

==> My Out-of-Control Teen: Help for Parents with Delinquent Children and Teens

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