Children who become involved in the criminal justice system are treated separately from adult offenders. The focus of the juvenile justice system is also different from the adult system.
In the juvenile system, the hope and goal is rehabilitation, unlike the adult system, which is punitive in nature.
What are other differences between the juvenile justice system and the adult system?
Juvenile matters are handled in juvenile court. Often these matters are handled by judges or magistrates who deal solely with juvenile cases. Typically, in juvenile court the accused is not referred to as the defendant but as the respondent. Juveniles are not entitled to a jury of adults. Often, as a matter of course, the juvenile court will appoint an attorney to represent the interests of the child by insuring that the child receives proper notice of any charges that may be brought against the child as well as by cross-examining any witnesses the state may produce at any hearing to adjudicate the child a juvenile offender under that state's statutes.
If a juvenile is found to have committed the offense he or she is charged with, often the juvenile is not found guilty but is determined to be a juvenile offender. Another major difference between the two systems is in how an individual is detained in custody. Adults go to jail, while juveniles are confined only after repeat offenses or committing a crime against someone's person. Typically, the juvenile court, with court supervision, will release the child back to the parents.
What are the ages the court considers when determining whether or not someone is a juvenile?
Historically it could be any age up until the age of majority, which usually is eighteen years of age. More recently, due in part to a few high-profile offenses involving young offenders, many states have put into place different criteria for determining whether a child should be considered a juvenile or whether that child should be tried as an adult.
Typically, if a juvenile is a repeat offender within the system, the juvenile court can be petitioned by the prosecutor to have the child certified as an adult to stand trial in adult court. Or if an individual is charged with a crime that he or she committed as a juvenile but the person is now an adult or within a year of obtaining majority status, the court may certify that person as an adult or dismiss the charge outright so it can be refiled in the adult system.
Even though criminal statistics tell us that juvenile crime is at its lowest point in years, given the nature of high-profile offenses, there has been a backlash by most legislatures to change or at least reexamine the juvenile justice system as it relates to individuals between the ages of fourteen and eighteen.
Criminal statutes relating to juveniles differ from state to state. It is important to contact an attorney who practices in the area of criminal law, specifically juvenile law, if you have a specific question about the law of your state.