How Juvenile Court is Different from Adult Court

The juvenile justice system is different than the normal criminal justice system. Juvenile court deals with minors who have been accused of violating a criminal statute and the proceedings are civil, rather than criminal like in an adult case. Juvenile offenders are accused of committing a delinquent act instead of being formally charged with a criminal offense.

When a prosecutor or probation officer files a civil petition that charges the juvenile with violating a criminal law, the juvenile case will officially begin. If charges are proved in juvenile court and the youth is determined a delinquent, the offender will come under the power of the courts. After this, the juvenile court has complete authority to do what it considers in the best interest of the juvenile delinquent. Juvenile court will usually maintain legal authority until the juvenile becomes an adult, but in some cases they will retain legal power for even longer.

Who is Eligible for Juvenile Court?

In most states, any youth under the age of 18 is considered a juvenile. However, in some states the age is 16 or 17, and in Wyoming the maximum age is 19. Most states consider children under the age of seven incapable of determining the difference between right and wrong or forming guilt. Parents pay compensation to anyone victimized by the acts of a very young child. Courts often deem parents unfit to care for a child who commits a crime at a young age and place that child into the custody of relatives or foster care. If a judge feels that a child was capable of forming criminal intent, they will be sent to juvenile court.

Cases in Juvenile Court

Juvenile delinquency cases: This involves minors who commit crimes, meaning offenses that an adult would be tried for in regular criminal court. Procedures in juvenile court are significantly different from those in adult criminal court.
Juvenile dependency cases: These cases involve minors who are abused or neglected by parents or guardians. The judge will ultimately decide whether or not the minor should be removed from a problematic home environment.
Cases involving status offenses: This only applies to minors and involves offenses like truancy, curfew violations, running away and underage drinking.

Common Juvenile Offenses

More than half of juvenile arrests are made for the following violations:

  • Theft
  • Simple assault
  • Drug abuse
  • Disorderly conduct
  • Curfew violations

Only about three percent of cases heard in juvenile court are violent offenses like rape, robbery, murder and aggravated assault.

Generally, the vast majority of juvenile court cases have involved male offenders, but the number of girls entering the system has risen in recent years. Girls now account for 27 percent of all juveniles facing proceeding in juvenile courts in the United States.

Juvenile Court Procedures

The procedures in juvenile court are drastically different from those of adult criminal court. The police, prosecutors, juvenile court intake officials and court judges have broad discretion to take more informal steps when handling the case. As a result of this, many young offenders never reach the point of a formal hearing. Juveniles do have the right to an attorney, but in most states they don’t have the right to have their case heard by a jury. Serious offenses are transferred to adult court in a procedure called a waiver. In these cases, juveniles have the right to a hearing.