Juvenile Law FAQs

Q: What is the juvenile-justice system?

A: The term juvenile-justice system refers to “[t]he collective institutions through which a youthful offender passes until any charges have been disposed of or the assessed punishment has been concluded.” Black’s Law Dictionary (9th ed. 2009). Juvenile courts (attorneys and judges), law enforcement (police) and corrections (probation officers and social workers), are the primary institutions of the juvenile-justice system.

Q: What is the maximum age for juvenile court?

A: The most common maximum age for a child to be in juvenile court is seventeen years, although some states set a maximum of fifteen or sixteen. Some states set different ages for particular types of crimes. In most states, cases involving a juvenile of any age may be transferred to adult court.

Q: What is an “adjudication”?

A: An adjudication is a finding by a juvenile court that a child committed a delinquent act. An adjudication is generally not considered a criminal conviction and will not deprive the juvenile of civil rights, such as the right to vote.

Q: Does an adjudication stay on a child’s record?

A: In most states, an adjudication stays on a child’s record only for juvenile court purposes, to determine if a child is a repeat offender, or if the conditions of probation have been complied with. Once a juvenile becomes an adult, his or her record is permanently sealed, and cannot be reopened for any purpose.

Q: Are children locked up in the same places as adults?

A: Federal law strongly discourages keeping children confined with adult offenders or suspects. The law requires physical and visual separation of juveniles and adults. Usually, a child is to be confined with adults for no more than six hours, while awaiting a transfer to a juvenile facility.

Q: What is “diversion”?

A: Many cases involving juveniles are not heard in court. The child’s case is handled by another agency, usually a public or private social services agency. This is known as “diversion.” The child, the child’s parents and the agency come to an agreement about how to handle the child’s offense. This will often involve meeting certain conditions, such as restitution, community service, counseling or school attendance. If the child meets all of the agreed conditions, the case will be dismissed without court action. If the conditions are not met, the child may be referred to juvenile court.

Q: What is “restitution”?

A: Restitution involves ordering the juvenile to pay the victim a sum of money designed to compensate the victim for the monetary costs of the crime, usually property damage. A juvenile court will often order restitution as a condition of probation.

Q: We have paid for the damage done by our child, the victim says he’s satisfied and the matter is closed. Will the court drop the case?

A: Probably not, although the fact that restitution has been made will be considered by the court. Forgiveness by the victim or punishment by parents may be a factor in determining the court’s sentence, but it is not a reason for the case to be dropped.

Q: What is a “status offense”?

A: A status offense is an offense that would not be a crime if committed by an adult. The most common status offenses are truancy, curfew violations or underage consumption or possession of alcohol. Other status offenses include “incorrigibility” (serious or persistent misbehavior by a child, making reformation by parental control impossible or unlikely). All states have enacted laws or rules that provide that status offenders may not be sentenced to incarceration.

Q: Do we need a lawyer to represent my child even if my child is innocent?

A: Every child involved in the juvenile court system needs an attorney. Children who have not done anything wrong are still in need of representation throughout the process to ensure that their rights are protected.

Q: If my child simply intends to plead guilty, why does he or she need a lawyer?

A: In some states, your child may not be allowed to plead guilty unless he or she has spoken with an attorney. Even if your child is guilty of the crime with which he or she is charged, it is still important to hire an attorney who will work on your child’s behalf to make sure he or she gets the help he or she needs at a difficult time.

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