A narrower range of rights protects juveniles in the juvenile justice system than adult defendants in criminal court. This is because the juvenile justice system is less punitive, so the consequences of being found delinquent are far less severe than the consequences of a conviction in adult court. Historically, very few constitutional rights applied in juvenile courts, but this has started to change. Protections for juveniles vary from state to state more than protections for adult defendants. While the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that some rights are constitutionally required in all states, other rights arise from laws and court decisions at the state level, which means that they do not extend across state lines.
Rights Before Trial
Similar to arrests of adults, arrests of juveniles must be supported by probable cause. Police officers generally must provide Miranda warnings as well. Probable cause is required before searching a juvenile in most cases, unless school authorities are conducting the search. They can detain and search a juvenile based on a reasonable suspicion, which is a lesser burden than probable cause.
The right to request bail, which can be critical to adult defendants, is not available in juvenile court. However, a juvenile often does not need this protection because law enforcement usually will release them to the custody of a parent or guardian. They do have a right to a phone call in most cases if they are being held in custody. Asking to call a parent or attorney triggers their Miranda rights, which means that the police must refrain from questioning them until they make the call.
According to the U.S. Supreme Court, a juvenile has a constitutional right to notice of the charges against them. They also have a right to an attorney, including a right to a public defender if they cannot afford to hire a private attorney.
Rights During Trial
The Fifth Amendment protects an individual from self-incrimination. This right extends to juveniles, who cannot be required to provide testimony against themselves. They also have a constitutional right to confront and cross-examine witnesses. Their attorney can challenge the testimony provided by prosecution witnesses.
Generally, a juvenile does not have a right to a jury trial in juvenile court. This is because the U.S. Supreme Court has found that using a jury would undermine the confidentiality of juvenile court proceedings. It also has found that juvenile court proceedings are different from proceedings in regular criminal court because they are not truly adversarial. Juvenile courts are supposed to rehabilitate rather than punish a juvenile, and a formal adversarial process might hinder that goal. The Supreme Court did not forbid states from providing a jury trial in juvenile cases, though. A few states offer this right in cases that involve severe penalties.
The standard of proof in juvenile cases varies depending on the penalties at issue. If the juvenile may be adjudicated delinquent or sentenced to incarceration, the prosecution has the burden of proving the charges beyond a reasonable doubt. In other situations, the prosecution has the burden of proving the charges by the preponderance of the evidence. This is a much lower standard, commonly used in civil cases, which means that the juvenile more likely than not committed the charged offense.