Juvenile Delinquency & the Legal Process
The steps in a juvenile case are different from the steps in a criminal case brought against an adult. Police officers, prosecutors, and judges have substantial discretion in handling juvenile cases. Often, the police will be able to resolve a matter without ever taking it to court. They might initiate contact with a juvenile directly, or they might meet with them after the juvenile’s parents or school authorities contact them. The police might briefly detain a juvenile and give them a warning before releasing them, or they might detain the juvenile, warn them, and hold them until a parent or guardian comes. In more serious cases, the police will take the juvenile into custody so that the juvenile court can handle the matter.
If the case reaches their attention, the prosecutor will need to decide whether to move forward with it. Sometimes a probation officer or another juvenile court intake officer will help make this decision. The factors that the prosecutor or intake officer may consider include any criminal history of the juvenile, as well as their age, the level of the offense, and the ability of their parents to discipline and guide them. Prosecutors charge boys more often than girls. Also, as with any criminal case, the prosecutor will need to decide whether they have enough evidence to prove the offense. Nearly half of all cases in juvenile courts are dismissed or handled informally instead of going through formal proceedings.
This means that the prosecutor does not file a formal charge. Instead, the juvenile appears before a judge or a probation officer. They may be ordered to pay a fine or restitution, perform community service, attend extra classes or counseling programs, enter probation, or a combination. The judge or probation officer probably will warn the juvenile to stay out of trouble and make sure that they understand the consequences of their actions. Sometimes law enforcement finds out that a juvenile is being mistreated by a parent or guardian. This may result in a proceeding to remove them from the custody of the abusive adult.
The juvenile will be arraigned in juvenile court, which means that they will be formally charged by a judge. They may be transferred to adult court in some situations involving serious crimes. Most often, a juvenile will remain at home until their next court appearance, although the judge has the authority to keep them in custody. Assuming that their case is not transferred to adult court, they may reach a plea agreement with the prosecution, or they may get diversion. Or the case may move forward to an adjudicatory hearing.
A plea agreement is similar to a plea bargain between the prosecution and an adult defendant. In exchange for getting the charges dropped, the juvenile will need to meet certain conditions set by the prosecution, such as paying restitution or going to counseling. Diversion is a similar alternative in which the juvenile must meet certain conditions imposed by the judge. The case remains active until the juvenile completes the conditions. The judge will dismiss the case if the juvenile meets the conditions, or they will reinstate the charges if the juvenile fails to meet the conditions.
An adjudicatory hearing is parallel to a trial in adult court. Each side will be able to present evidence and testimony. Most adjudicatory hearings do not occur before a jury, which leaves the decision to a judge. After weighing the evidence, the judge will decide whether the juvenile is delinquent, which is parallel to guilty in adult court. If they make a delinquency finding, the next step is the disposition hearing, which is parallel to a sentencing hearing in adult court. The consequences of a delinquency finding will depend on the best interests of the delinquent juvenile. In determining the penalties, the judge will consider the recommendations of the probation officer who will have evaluated the juvenile. Penalties may include probation, restitution, treatment or counseling, or a term in a juvenile detention facility. Sometimes a juvenile will need to make later appearances before a judge to demonstrate their improved behavior. These are known as post-disposition hearings.
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