The Juvenile Court Case Process

The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) has published material charting the flow of the typical juvenile court case process. As many cases are processed informally, and court decisions are highly individualized, the model "case flow" is rather general; however, the basic procedures described are standard nationwide.

Arrest, Referral, and Initial Detainment

The first encounter a youth has with the juvenile justice system is usually his or her arrest by a law enforcement official. Other ways that youth enter the system include "referrals" by parents and schools, delinquency victims, and probation officers. A decision is usually made after arrest as to whether a youth should be detained and charged, released, or transferred into another youth welfare program. The officer handling the case makes this decision based on information obtained from the victims of the crime committed by the juvenile, the juvenile himself, the juvenile's parents, and any past records the youth has with the juvenile justice system. Federal regulations require that juveniles being held in adult penitentiaries (while officials attempt to contact parents or make transfer arrangements) be kept out of "sight and sound" of adult inmates, and be removed from the adult facility within six hours.

When a juvenile court case reaches the juvenile probation department, an intake officer will decide whether to dismiss it, handle it informally, or hear it formally. To make this decision the officer reviews the facts surrounding the case to decide if there is enough information to try the youth. If the court has received adequate evidence to hear the case, a decision will be made as to whether the juvenile case should be heard formally or informally. If the information available is inadequate, the case will be dropped.

While a youth awaits trial he or she may be held in a "secure detention facility." A judge will determine if the juvenile should be detained before and through the course of the trial, and define the intent of the detainment, in a "detention hearing," usually held within 24 hours of the arrest. A youth will typically be detained if he poses a threat to himself or public safety.

Informal Hearing and Disposition

Approximately 50 percent of all juvenile justice cases are heard informally, and among these, most are dismissed. Cases receive an "informal disposition" by a judge when a youth admits guilt and agrees to settle the charges by meeting the requirements of the court, which are laid out in a "consent decree." Among these requirements may be:

  • Restitution - juvenile is required to reimburse the victim or pay a fine to the community for damages he has caused.
  • Mandatory curfew - juvenile is subject to a strict curfew.
  • School attendance - juvenile is required to attend school regularly.
  • Rehabilitation - juvenile is required to participate in drug or other rehabilitation programs.

Once all parties have agreed to the "consent decree," the youth will be released on a probationary basis to fulfill his obligations. During this "informal probation" time, his progress will be monitored by a probation officer. After he has met the requirements of the "consent decree," the juvenile court case will be dismissed. If the youth fails to meet the orders outlined by the court, he may be required to face a formal hearing.

Formal Hearing

If, upon assessment of a juvenile's case, a formal hearing is deemed necessary, an initial decision must be made as to how the case will be heard. In many states, specified cases may be heard in either juvenile or criminal court. In such situations the prosecutor is generally given the liberty to decide where the case will be tried. Most cases involving juveniles fall under the jurisdiction of the juvenile court. However, in some states, laws have been instituted that require particularly egregious offenses to be tried in criminal court.

Juvenile Court Hearings

Juvenile courts receive two petitions from prosecutors: "delinquency petitions" and "waiver petitions." A delinquency petition asks a judge to declare a youth "delinquent," and a waiver petition asks the juvenile court to forfeit its authority over a case (that by precedent or law would fall under its jurisdiction) and transfer it to criminal court.

Delinquency Petition

A delinquency petition informs the judge of the allegations against a youth and asks the judge to "adjudicate," (hear and judge) the case in a formal hearing. During an adjudicatory hearing the testimony of witnesses and the facts of the case are heard. If the juvenile is found "delinquent" by the judge (or in some states, by a jury), a "disposition hearing" is scheduled. In the interim, the probation office is tasked with the responsibility of evaluating the youth and recommending a course of action for the court to take. Probation officials will take into account the results of any studies that have been made of the youth. Often these include "psychological evaluations" and "diagnostic tests." The "disposition plan" advises the court on which of the available options would best benefit the youth and the community.

During the disposition hearing the probation officer, prosecutor, and juvenile are permitted to propose disposition strategies. The recommendations frequently include drug rehabilitation, limited (weekend) confinement, restitution, and residential placement. A youth may be placed on probation or within a residential facility for a designated period of time, or until the requirements of the disposition have been met. His progress will be assessed through periodic "review hearings" by the court. Once the orders of the disposition have been met, the juvenile court case will be terminated.

Delinquent youth who have been named "wards of the state" are placed in "residential facilities." Levels of security vary between different facilities, some being similar to prisons, and some resembling group homes. Once a youth has finished his or her term in a residential facility he will often be placed on "aftercare." Aftercare is similar to parole; essentially, the youth's progress and behavior are monitored by the juvenile corrections department for a period of time.

Waiver Petition

If a prosecutor or "intake officer" decides a case that would normally be under the sole jurisdiction of the juvenile court be heard in criminal court, he or she will submit a "waiver petition." The court will decide where the case will be heard after reviewing the circumstances surrounding the case and assessing the likelihood that the youth would be rehabilitated under the care of the juvenile justice system. Factors that affect the court's decision are the criminal history of the youth (if he/she is a repeat offender), the success of past rehabilitation efforts, age, and the amount of time youth services would have to work with the offender. If a judge approves a petition waiver, the case is directed toward criminal court and the juvenile court waives its jurisdiction. If a judge denies a petition waiver, the case is slated to the juvenile court and an adjudicatory hearing is scheduled.

Status Offenses

A number of cases in the juvenile justice system involve "status offenses." Status offenses are distinguished from delinquent acts by the fact that they are only law violations on the basis of the offender's "status" as a minor. Some examples of status offenses are:

  • Underage alcohol consumption.
  • Truancy from school.
  • General "ungovernability."
  • Violation of curfew.
  • Running away from home.

The court handles status offenses differently than it handles delinquency acts (which would be considered "criminal" if the perpetrator was adult). Usually the court sees "status offense" behavior as a warning sign that a youth is in need of assistance. The cases are often handled by social service organizations and child welfare agencies. Status offenders normally will not be held in secure residential facilities, as the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act has called for a "deinstitutionalization" of status offenders.

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If you could benefit from further information on what to expect during a juvenile court case hearing, or if you would like your case reviewed by an experienced attorney, contact a criminal lawyer.

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