Criminal Sentencing In Juvenile Court

Read our guide to find out about criminal sentencing in juvenile court, including the differences between adult and juvenile sentences, the importance of juvenile deterrence and rehabilitation, juvenile rights, and how juvenile court handles young offenders and places them safely back into the community.

What are juveniles?

Children and young people, referred to in criminal proceedings as juveniles or young offenders, are treated differently in court to adults who commit crimes. The way in which juveniles are dealt with varies by state, however the consensus is that the main target of juvenile court is to deter and rehabilitate young offenders due to their young ages.

Because of this, juvenile courts offer a wide variety of rehabilitation programs and generally lesser sentences than those of adult offenders. 

General guidelines of the juvenile court system

One general guideline is that children under the age of 14 are not able to be charged with a crime unless a prosecutor can prove guilty intent in the child’s mind. This is because a child’s mind is not fully developed yet. For general crimes, children under the age of around 12 are not normally candidates for juvenile court and are dealt with by parents and guardians as directed by the police.

Obviously this is also highly dependent on the nature and severity of the crime committed and exceptions can be made for particularly heinous crimes. 

How is a case of juvenile crime initially handled by the court?

Firstly, a case will be taken in by the police, which is then handed to the juvenile court. A prosecutor will then decide whether to dismiss the charges (normally if the crime is not severe or there is a lack of evidence), to deal with the case informally (the case does not go to court and some other resolution is decided upon to prevent reoffending), or whether to file formal charges (the case is taken to court.) 

Once formal charges have been filed, depending on the nature of the case and the age of the juvenile, the juvenile will be arraigned and either charged as a minor or sent to the adult court system.

If the case remains in the juvenile court system, a judge will normally keep jurisdiction and the juvenile is normally sent to attend rehabilitation programs such as counseling and community programs in the meantime. Other requirements of the juvenile may include paying restitution and fulfilling school requirements. 

Types of juvenile criminal sentencing 

Usually, sentencing is relatively minor for juveniles, even when there is a major crime. In the best case scenario, a juvenile will receive a verbal warning. If a punishment needs to be escalated, a juvenile may face punishments including paying restitution, being made to take counseling or community rehabilitation programs, electronic monitoring and curfews, and community service punishments such as litter picking. 

For more serious crimes, a juvenile may be placed under house arrest or in a juvenile detention centre. They may undergo shock probation (confinement and discipline camps), be incarcerated at a secure facility (from minimum to maximum security depending on crime severity), or even charged as an adult. 

What happens if a juvenile case goes to the adult court system?

If a juvenile is a repeat offender or a crime is of a nature deemed particularly serious by the court, the young offender may be charged as an adult.

This means that they may be incarcerated in an adult prison among it’s adult population, undergo the same sentence as an adult would, and also have the same rights as an adult. Juveniles can be charged as adults if the judge decides that they will not be rehabilitated by the juvenile justice system, or if state automatic transfer laws depict that the juvenile is of an age old enough for the seriousness of the crime committed is eligible for adult court (normally around 13-16 years of age).

Most juveniles will aim to be tried as such, because not only will they generally receive a much more lenient sentence, they will also have the opportunity to seal their records in the future. Read below to find out how juvenile criminal records can be sealed to avoid future hardships as an adult. 

Is a juvenile criminal record valid throughout adulthood?

Juveniles may request that their records are sealed by petition to the court at age 18. This is performed on a case-by-case basis and is decided by the court, depending on the nature of the crime. All records of a juvenile’s interactions and sentencing with the juvenile justice system are kept until a sealing request is approved.

It is highly recommended that rehabilitated juveniles request for their records to be sealed at the age of 18, as having a juvenile criminal record can have serious negative impacts on all aspects of adult life from job opportunities to buying houses.

What are the legal rights of juveniles?

The legal rights of juveniles are quite similar to those of adults these days. Firstly, the police cannot search or detain a suspected young offender without probable cause, yet a school faculty member or parent may legally do so.

Often during court proceedings, juveniles are released to their parents while waiting for their date in court (referred to as a preadjudiciation detention) rather than being held. Juveniles may also exercise their right to counsel, which means that they may pay for their own legal representation or be provided this by the court if they cannot afford to do so.

The legal representation can be found by their parents or by speaking with a public defender. Juveniles also have fifth amendment rights to prevent possible self-incrimination, the right to notice of any charges, the right to confront charges and cross-examine any witnesses, and the right to a trial by jury (not in all states).

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