A juvenile court (or young offender's court) is a tribunal having special authority to try and pass judgments for crimes committed by children or adolescents who have not attained the age of majority. In most modern legal systems, crimes committed by children and minors are treated differently to the same crimes committed by adults.
Severe offenses, such as murder and gang-related acts, in 44 states of the USA are treated the same as crimes committed by adults. It was reported in 2007 that "Beginning around 35 years ago, increases in violent juvenile crime permitted judges to transfer juveniles to adult-criminal courts. No national data exist on the number of juvenile offenders prosecuted as adults." "The main difference between a juvenile court and an adult court in England is that the juvenile court has a much wider jurisdiction in terms of the offenses it can try. It can deal with a juvenile for any offense except homicide, although it is not bound to deal with a young person for a serious offense such as robbery or rape; on such a charge he can be committed to the Crown Court for trial in the same manner as an adult."
Juvenile court is a special court or department of a trial court which deals with under-age defendants charged with crimes or who are neglected or out of the control of their parents. The normal age of these defendants is under 18, but juvenile court does not have jurisdiction in cases in which minors are charged as adults. The procedure in juvenile court is not always adversarial, although the minor is entitled to legal representation by a lawyer. Parents or social workers and probation officers may be involved in the process to achieve positive results and save the minor from involvement in future crimes. However, serious crimes and repeated offenses can result in sentencing juvenile offenders to prison, with transfer to state prison upon reaching adulthood with limited maximum sentences, often until the age of 18, 21, 23 or 25. Where parental neglect or loss of control is a problem, the juvenile court may seek out foster homes for the juvenile, treating the child as a ward of the court.
A juvenile court handles case of delinquency and dependency. Delinquency refers to crimes committed by minors, and dependency includes cases where a non-parental person is chosen to care for a minor.
The age of majority under Scots law is 16. The Children's Hearings System was established in 1971, taking over from the previous juvenile courts the responsibility for dealing with children and young people who are in need of care or protection or who have committed alleged offences. The Scottish Children's Reporter Administration, a Scottish Government executive non-departmental public body with responsibility for protecting children at risk, became operational in 1996.
In all but four states, anyone charged with committing a criminal act before his or her seventeenth or eighteenth birthday is initially processed as a juvenile defendant. In New York and North Carolina the minimum age at which all accused persons are charged as adults is 13. In Illinois, Michigan, Texas and eight others the minimum age is 17. In other states, such as Washington, the minimum age depends on the severity of the crime.
In Kent v. United States (1966), the United States Supreme Court held that a juvenile must be afforded due process rights, specifically that a waiver of jurisdiction from a juvenile court to a district court must be voluntary and knowing. The U.S. Supreme Court held, in 1967, that children accused in a juvenile delinquency proceeding have the rights to due process, counsel, and against self-incrimination, essentially the Miranda rights. Writing for the majority, Associate Justice Abe Fortas wrote, "Under our Constitution, the condition of being a boy does not justify a kangaroo court." However, most juvenile proceedings are held without a jury as McKeiver v. Pennsylvania (1971) decided that minors do not have the same rights in this regard as adults.
Age of criminal responsibility
There is no uniform national age from which a child is accountable in the juvenile court system; this varies between states, with many setting 10 as the minimum. Not all minors who commit a crime are committed to juvenile (or adult) court. A police officer has three choices:
- Detain and warn the minor against further violations, and then let the minor go free
- Detain and warn the minor against further violations, but hold the minor until a parent or guardian comes for the minor
- Place the minor in custody and refer the case to an officer
Avoiding formal charges
In an American juvenile court, it is possible to avoid placing formal charges. FindLaw lists seven official factors that can help formal charges be avoided: In Connecticut, a referral can be made to a non-court associated committee referred to as a Juvenile Review Board. These boards can present a resolution that does not result in a juvenile criminal record. However, there are circumstances such as the types of cases the board will accept.
- The severity of the offense. A serious crime is more likely to result in the filing of a petition than a less serious crime.
- The minor's age. Petitions are more likely to be filed in cases involving older children.
- The minor's past record. Formal charges are more likely when a minor has been previously involved with juvenile court.
- The strength of the evidence that the minor committed a crime. Obviously, stronger evidence leads to a greater likelihood of formal charges.
- The minor's sex. Formal charges are more likely to be filed against boys than against girls.
- The minor's social history. Petitions are more likely to be filed when children have a history of problems at home or at school.
- The parent's or guardian's apparent ability to control the minor. The greater the lack of parental control, the more likely the intake officer is to file a petition.
Along with these seven, four "unofficial" factors can sway an official:
- The minor's attitude. Formal proceedings are less likely when a child shows remorse for committing a crime.
- The minor's appearance. If the young person dresses well, is neatly groomed and is polite, intake personnel are more likely to handle the case informally.
- Whether the minor has family or community support. The more support the young person has, the more likely the intake officer is to deal with the case informally.
- Whether the minor has an attorney. Disposing of a case informally may be less likely when a child has a lawyer.
In his 1997 book No Matter How Loud I Shout, a study of the Los Angeles' Juvenile Courts, Edward Humes argued that the system is in need of a revolutionary reform. He stated that the system sends too many children with good chances of rehabilitation to adult court, while pushing aside and acquitting children early on the road in crime instead of giving counseling, support, and accountability. 57% of children arrested for the first time are never arrested again, 27% are arrested one or two more times, and 16% commit four or more crimes.
- Encyclopaedia Britannica. Crime and Punishment. Treatment of juvenile offenders. Reformatory movement.
- Kent v. United States 383 U.S. 541 (1966), found at Findlaw.com. Accessed February 4, 2010.
- In re Gault, 387 U.S. 1, 28.
- "When a Minor Commits A Crime". Find Law. Retrieved 2007-05-31.
- "When a Minor Commits A Crime". Find Law. Retrieved 2007-05-31.
- Information about Juvenile Justice from the Penal Reform International website.
- National Juvenile Defender Center
- Juveniles involved in the Justice System a review of the juvenile justice system in the United States, comparing it to Canada.
- Violent Justice: Adult system fails young offenders
- Prevent Delinquency Project