Juvenile Crime Juvenile Delinquents and the Juvenile Justice System

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  1. When a child or a minor commits a crime, he or she enters the criminal justice system. However, the system treats minors differently than adults. Rather than calling the minor a “criminal defendant,” the special term used to describe this young person is a “juvenile delinquent.”

    The Definition of a Juvenile Delinquent

    A juvenile delinquent is a minor who commits a criminal offense and is 10 to 18 years old (as defined under the law in many jurisdictions.) The law takes a different perspective on crimes committed by young persons. It perceives youthful offenders as being immature and not fully appreciating the law and the consequences of their actions. They should be provided with an opportunity to learn from their mistakes. The goal of the juvenile justice system is to rehabilitate, not to punish, so that juvenile delinquents have a chance to become productive adults.

    The Juvenile Justice System

    An adult who breaks the law commits a crime or a “criminal offense.” A minor child who breaks the law commits a “delinquent act.” In addition to sounding less ominous, it is also handled with more leniency. A juvenile delinquent is usually not subjected to a trial in criminal court. Instead, the act is heard as part of an “adjudication” and a “disposition” (synonymous with a judgment) is reached along with a sentence issued by the court.
    There are two general categories of delinquent acts. The first consists of general offenses that would also be considered a crime if committed by an adult. Criminal charges for shoplifting, possession of illegal drugs and commission of manslaughter are some examples. Minor children are most frequently charged and tried as juveniles in juvenile court. Their parents may be required to pay court costs. When serious crimes are committed, such as murder, juveniles may be tried as adults pursuant to a trial in criminal court

    The second category of delinquent acts consists of crimes related to age - the child’s “status” as a minor. Some examples include underage drinking and consumption of alcohol, tobacco smoking, being out during nightfall after a defined curfew and truancy (failing to attend school for a substantial period of time.) These acts would not be considered crimes if they were adults. Judges are required to follow specific guidelines during sentencing. As the goal in the juvenile justice system is primarily rehabilitative, they are required to act in the best interest of the child.

    Special Rights and Protections of Juveniles

    Juveniles have special rights and protections under the law that are not otherwise afforded to adults in criminal court. Juvenile records are generally sealed. At age 18, if the delinquent has met certain conditions of the court, the records are usually expunged (destroyed or sealed from the state or Federal repository.) This prevents the minor from suffering the harsh effects of having a criminal record follow them forever as a result of a mistake made during a period of immaturity. Juveniles may also have a right to prerelease for non-violent delinquent acts.

    Representation by a Juvenile Attorney

    Minors have extra rights in the criminal justice system and they usually require special assistance. When a child is facing adjudication, it is probably prudent to consult with an experienced juvenile attorney. If a delinquent act is not handled correctly, the resulting disposition can mar the minor’s record in a way that will follow them into adulthood. As is the case with adults, a juvenile has the right to an attorney. If the child cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed at no cost (the public defender.)
    Criminal Law & Procedure:
    Criminal Charges - Juvenile Crime

    Michael Wechsler

    Michael Wechsler
    Michael M. Wechsler is an experienced attorney, founder of TheLaw.com, A. Research Scholar at Columbia Business School and of-counsel to Kaplan, Williams & Graffeo, LLC. He was also an SVP and chief Internet strategist at Zedge.net and legal consultant at Kroll Ontrack, a leading service e-discovery and computer forensics service provider.


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  1. BethAlmeida
    So what happens if a juvenile is charged in a transfer hearing as an adult but the public defender never objected to anything? There is a taped confession by the juvenile with no legal counsel present. The police say he waived his right to an attorney, but no one explained exactly what that meant. He was 15 at the time of the incident. The public defender made no effort to have it suppressed or to argue the state of mind of the juvenile.
    1. Michael Wechsler
      I can say that given just the information you provide it sounds terrible. Unfortunately every legal/criminal case presents its own unique set of facts and circumstances which must be taken in their entirety in order to provide a meaningful answer. If you'd like to discuss individual issues, please ask a question in our forum and do not use the name or any personally identifiable information of the defendant.
      Michael Wechsler, Aug 3, 2017