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Juvenile Law FAQ

Q: What is juvenile court?
A: Children charged with breaking the law are subject to a special judicial system called juvenile court. The focus of the juvenile court system is generally rehabilitation versus punishment. In some cases, when a more serious crime is committed and the juvenile is older in age, he/she may be tried as an adult in the regular criminal court system. If tried in a regular criminal court, sentencing will be more in accord with adult punishment, whereas when tried in juvenile court, incarceration is typically in a rehabilitative setting and generally ends when the juvenile attains the age of majority.
In many states, juvenile courts also hear cases involving the abuse or neglect of children.

Q: What is the maximum age for juvenile court?

A: Eighteen (18) years of age is the most common maximum age for a child to be in juvenile court system, but varies state by state with some states setting a maximum age of fifteen (15) or sixteen (16). Some states also set different ages for certain 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: Adjudication is a finding by a juvenile court that a child committed a delinquent act. An adjudication is generally not considered a conviction for a crime, a term often used on employment applications. Further, an adjudication will never deprive the juvenile of civil rights, such as the right to vote.

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

A: Juvenile court proceedings are confidential, with a few exceptions. The public is prohibited from attending these court hearings and viewing any records related to the case.

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 adhered to.

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

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

Because the focus of the juvenile court system is rehabilitation rather than punishment, incarcerated juveniles are sent to places very different from adult jails. Many juvenile facilities are like an ordinary residence versus a prison.

Q: What is “diversion”?

A: Many juvenile cases are not heard in court; rather, 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 best handle the child’s offense. This typically involves meeting certain conditions, such as restitution, counseling, community service, or school attendance. If the child meets all of the conditions agreed to, the case will be dismissed without any court action. If the conditions of the agreement are not met, the child may be referred to juvenile court.

Q: What is “restitution”?

A: Restitution is the ordering of 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. It is common for a juvenile court to order restitution as a condition of probation.

Q: We have paid for the damage done by our child and the victim says he or she is 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 parental punishment may both 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.”

According to state enacted laws, 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. Those children who have not done anything wrong are perhaps in even greater need of aggressive representation to ensure that their rights are protected and that the truth prevails. Even innocent children end up being punished, so the best way to avoid such matters is to seek the services of a highly skilled criminal defense attorney.

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 afforded the right 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 imperative that you seek the advice of an experienced juvenile defense attorney so that the sentence can be minimized, and your child can maximize the opportunities to move ahead toward a brighter future. Juvenile defense attorneys are needed to equalize the balance of power between the child and the prosecution and to ensure that the constitutional rights that are guaranteed to all juvenile defendants, whether guilty or not, are preserved.