A separate and parallel criminal justice system exists for minors charged with or convicted of criminal offenses. A “minor” is typically someone under the age of 18, although the maximum age for the juvenile justice system in some states is 17. People in the juvenile justice system are often referred to as “juvenile delinquents” or “juvenile offenders.” A juvenile system also exists for federal crimes, but federal law requires transfer of juvenile criminal cases to state courts whenever possible. The overall rate of juvenile arrests and prosecutions has increased in recent years. This may be the result of societal pressures like drugs or poverty, or it may be due to more aggressive enforcement and zero-tolerance policies. The juvenile system differs from the adult criminal justice system in its greater emphasis on rehabilitation and prevention rather than punishment.
Juvenile Justice System
Since the goal of the juvenile justice system is not to remove juvenile offenders from society through incarceration, but rather to rehabilitate them, juvenile criminal proceedings are often less formal than those for adults. Juvenile courts maintain a docket that consists exclusively of juvenile criminal cases, so the judges often develop a certain expertise at dealing with youthful offenders. In many jurisdictions, accused juvenile offenders are referred to as “respondents” rather than “defendants,” in order to demonstrate that the case is different from an adult prosecution.
Punishments in juvenile cases tend to feature a wide range of alternatives to incarceration. Respondents may be ordered to pay restitution for damage they have caused, maintain school attendance, abide by a curfew, or complete certain educational or treatment programs. Terms of probation are also quite common. If a court imposes a sentence of incarceration, it will typically be at a juvenile detention facility geared towards the respondent’s age group. For sufficiently serious crimes, prosecutors may seek to charge a minor as an adult. Even then, however, a court may be more lenient in sentencing than it would be for an adult.
In many jurisdictions, juvenile criminal records are automatically sealed once the individual becomes an adult. In others, the individual may request that the court seal the records, or he or she may request to have the records expunged.
Federal Juvenile Justice Law
In additional to state juvenile justice systems, the federal Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act provides federal resources to state and local governments. These include grants for delinquency prevention programs, assistance with missing children cases, and grants for programs aimed at runaway and homeless youth.
Some federal criminal statutes specifically address juvenile offenders. For example, § 922(x) of the federal Criminal Code prohibits minors from possessing firearms in many circumstances.
Juvenile Criminal Offenses
Minors may be charged with the same offenses as adults, including violent crimes like assault, property crimes like theft, and drug offenses. Some criminal offenses, known as “status” offenses, are based primarily on the respondent’s age because they would not be offenses if committed by an adult. These include truancy, running away from home, driving without a license, and underage drinking. Most status offenses are handled by social-services agencies rather than the juvenile court system, unless the individual has prior violations.
Prosecuting Juveniles as Adults
If an offense is particularly serious, prosecutors may decide to try a minor as an adult in criminal court. In some jurisdictions, prosecutors have discretion to do this for specific offenses, such as murder or aggravated assault. Some states may require juveniles to appear in criminal court for certain serious offenses. Other states require prosecutors to petition a court to transfer a juvenile case to criminal court. Additionally, state law may require a juvenile to go before a criminal court if he or she has a particularly long juvenile record, or if past efforts at rehabilitation have not succeeded.