Juvenile Law FAQs

What is the Juvenile Justice System?

The Juvenile Justice System is the legal system through which cases involving minors are handled. The system was implemented into U.S. policy in 1899 under the pretext that youth were different than adults in their ability to make prudent decisions, understand the effects of their actions, and comprehend the irreversible reality of committing a criminal act. Young offenders were viewed as having a better chance than adults of changing criminal behavior patterns. An additional reason the Juvenile Justice System was formed was because of the dangers youth faced in the adult prison system. Young offenders were at a heightened risk of being the victims of prison violence and of committing suicide.

What is juvenile delinquency?

Juvenile delinquency, according to the U.S. Code, is a violation of the law committed by a person under the age of 18 that would be considered a crime if it was committed by a person 18 or older. Juvenile offenders should contact a juvenile lawyer for assistance with their cases. A juvenile defender may be able to assist you in getting your case dismissed or in obtaining a lighter sentence.

What types of crimes do juveniles commit?

Although they are more likely to commit certain offenses than others, youths are involved in most categories of crime. The OJJDP's most recent Juvenile Offenders and Victims National Report Series tracked crime rates in 1999 and found that youths made up 54 percent of all arson arrests, 42 percent of all vandalism arrests, and 35 percent of all motor vehicle theft arrests.

What is the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act?

In 1974, the United States enacted the "Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act." The act aimed to increase funding for community based prevention programs and "deinstitutionalize" (remove from prison) status offenders. It required states to keep youth offenders separate from adult offenders. It also began the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, the Runaway Youth Program, and the National Institute for Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

What behaviors have been shown to increase the likelihood of a youth committing violent crime later in life?

Exposure to pornography and entertainment-violence seeds an inaccurate perception of people; this perception may have the latent effect of causing criminal action. Drug use has proven to be one of the most obvious and insidious causes of crime among youth in America. Juveniles may perform criminal acts out of desperation to obtain money to support their addictions. Theft, prostitution, weapon use, and gang involvement are firmly linked to the buying and selling of drugs.

Until what age is a youth considered a juvenile?

By federal standards all persons 17 and under are considered juveniles. Each state, however, has been given the authority to decide who, by age, may be tried in juvenile courts. Talk to a juvenile lawyer in your area to learn more about the juvenile laws in your state.

Cases may be moved from criminal court to juvenile court, and from juvenile court to criminal court, under certain circumstances. In many situations, youths tried in criminal courts may be treated as "youthful offenders." Youthful offender status may provide a youth with a closed hearing, and may allow a youth's record to be erased when he or she turns 21. Talk to a juvenile defender in your state to find out how your case will proceed through the court system.

How is being tried as a juvenile different than being tried as an adult?

Roughly half of all cases involving juveniles are heard informally. In many cases, if a youth admits guilt, the judge may issue an informal disposition requiring him or her to meet requirements set out in a consent decree. Sometimes a formal hearing will be deemed necessary, and a decision will be made as to whether the case should be heard in juvenile or criminal court. At a formal juvenile hearing, witnesses are heard and a judge hears and judges the case. In some states, a jury will decide the verdict. A separate disposition hearing will be held to decide where to place the youth if he or she is found guilty, or "delinquent."

Juvenile courts provide youth with specific rights; among them are such due-process rights as the right to trial, the right against self-incrimination, and the right to call witnesses. In most states, juveniles being tried in juvenile court are not entitled to a jury. They may not avoid detention by posting bail, but they do have the right to have their parents and legal advisor present before answering questions. The privacy of juvenile offenders is strictly guarded. Most juvenile court proceedings are closed to the public, and juvenile records are highly confidential. Under certain circumstances, juvenile records may even be cleared.

Are parents responsible to pay their child's court fines?

Parents may be required to pay fines charged to their children. Such fees may include victim restitution, court reimbursement, and state fines. Although the youth is expected to work to pay his or her debt, the parent(s) are ultimately responsible for the fine. Speak to a juvenile lawyer in your state for more information about juvenile law and parental responsibility.

Are youths in danger at detention facilities?

Youths held within juvenile detention facilities and adult jails can face significant risks. In juvenile detention facilities, inmates are often in the presence of conflicting gang groups. Youth also face the risk of receiving harsh disciplinary action from staff untrained in calming volatile situations. Problems that have been reported as leading to higher tension and abuse in juvenile detention centers include high inmate to staff ratios (overcrowded, understaffed facilities) and poorly trained staff. Staff should know how to manage tense situations and angry inmates, calming them down and diffusing tension instead of resorting to acts of restraint and control.

Within adult penitentiaries youths suffer heightened safety risks. Research conducted by Jeffrey Fagan of Columbia Law School compared safety rates of youths in juvenile detention to those of youths placed in adult confinement. It was found that juveniles in adult confinement are five times more likely to be sexually assaulted, eight times more likely to commit suicide, and twice as likely to be assaulted by staff.

What is the annual cost of juvenile incarceration?

Incarceration costs vary between different facilities and states. When making comparisons, the cost of each detention program must be weighed against its success at keeping inmates from becoming repeat offenders. The average amount of money it takes to incarcerate a youth for one year is $43,000. This comes to roughly $117 per day. High-end programs cost about $64,000 per year ($175 per day) and low-end programs cost about $23,000 ($63 per day). Much of the money spent on inmates goes toward medical care, supervision, and operating costs. The following points of interest may differ from common conceptions:

  • Educational programs held in youth prison centers usually lower prison costs. Youth in the classroom environment require less supervision than youth not participating in structured activities. In addition, earning a GED or credit toward college lowers recidivism rates by increasing the likelihood that a youth will find legitimate employment once out of detention.
  • Recreation programs that keep youths healthy and fit cut down on heavy medical costs and create safer prisons with lower security costs.
  • Personalized counseling programs (outside of prison) cost less than confinement and are often more effective.

What is "parens patriae"?

Parens patriae is the idea that the state has a responsibility to play a parental role for youths that have been neglected by their parents. This Latin term roughly translates to the concept of "state as parent," or "parent of the country." The U.S. adopted parens patriae from British Common Law, under which the sovereign was charged with the role of acting as parent to the country. Much juvenile justice policy is based on an understanding of this now implicit role of government. The U.S. Code addresses the state's parens patriae "rights" in Title 15, Chapter 1, Sections 15c-h, and Title 18, Chapter 13, Section 248. The latter reads, "If the Attorney General of a State has reasonable cause to believe that any person or group of persons is being, has been, or may be injured by conduct constituting a violation of this section, such Attorney General may commence a civil action in the name of such State, as parens patriae on behalf of natural persons residing in such State, in any appropriate United States District Court." For more information about parens patriae and how it could affect your case, contact a juvenile defender in your state.

What are some court and congress decisions that have affected the juvenile justice system?


The CARE Act was brought before the Senate in 2003. The act is designed to allow tax deductions for individuals who make charitable contributions. The aim of the program is to promote giving to community programs that benefit youth and their families. Such positive activities lower youth crime.

The Violent and Repeat Juvenile Offender Accountability and Rehabilitation Act

In 1999, Congress enacted the "Violent and Repeat Juvenile Offender Accountability and Rehabilitation Act." The act increased punishments for juvenile violent offenders based on its assessment that, "the rehabilitative model of sentencing for juveniles, which Congress rejected for adult offenders when Congress enacted the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, is inadequate and inappropriate for dealing with many violent and repeat juvenile offenders." The legislation requires violent juveniles to take responsibility for their actions. One of the most controversial aspects of the act is that it allows youth accused of violent crimes to be federally prosecuted as adults at the age of 14. The bill also tightens gun control laws.

In re Gault

The "In re Gault" decision of 1967 ensured that youth would be entitled to certain due process rights. Subsequent changes in the formality of the juvenile court made hearings less like civil proceedings and more like criminal trials. The rights juveniles were guaranteed in 1967 were the right to receive notice of charges, the right to obtain legal counsel, the right to call witnesses, the right against self-incrimination, the right to appeal a decision, and the right to receive a transcript of court proceedings.

How can I get a review of my case?

Contact a juvenile lawyer for a review of your case. A juvenile defender can evaluate your case and advise you as to how you should proceed.

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