The juvenile justice system differs from the criminal court system in a number of ways. A minor involved in the court system is not considered a defendant as such, but normally is identified as being a respondent or offender. Generally speaking, a juvenile is not found guilty of a crime but is adjudicated as being a juvenile offender. Additionally, in the juvenile justice system, there is an overriding principle that if adjudicated an offender, that minor child should be placed in the least restrictive alternative when it comes to the "sentence" in a given case. As a result, probation widely is utilized in the juvenile justice system today.
A separate juvenile court system is a development implemented during the past 100 years. Before that period of time, juveniles were prosecuted in the same courts that handled adult cases. In fact, if a juvenile was convicted at this juncture in history, that minor child normally would be sentenced to serve his (or her) time in the same penal facilities that housed adult convicts. All of this eventually did change with the establishment of separate courts and lockups in which adjudicated juvenile offenders would be housed. Over the course of the past 30 years, the concept of the least restrictive environment took hold.
The function of juvenile probation is to permit the youthful offender the ability to stay with his or her family if at all possible. The rationalization is that in most cases the home environment is the most stable place in which a young person dealing with the penalties for wrongdoing can reside. (Naturally, this is not always the reality.) While there is an evident penal aspect to any sentence (be it in juvenile or adult court), the stated objective of a juvenile sentence is rehabilitation. Experts contend this can best be undertaken through probation if at all possible as opposed to the young person being incarcerated.
There are different types of juvenile probation options. Unsupervised probation is appropriate for offenses that are not considered to be serious. Supervised probation requires the juvenile offender to report and maintain contact with a probation officer. Normally, there will be other requirements associated with this type of juvenile probation. There is intensive supervised probation as well (which goes by a variety of different names). With an intensive probation program, a juvenile will be required to maintain daily contact with the probation office. In some cases, this will also involve the use of home detention or an electronic monitoring device.
There are a number of fairly common misconceptions associated with juvenile probation. Perhaps the most common, widespread misconception is that juvenile probation is nothing but a slap on the wrist. The fact is that, except for the unsupervised juvenile probation (which generally is used in only the least series of cases, oftentimes involving first time offenders), a youthful offender will be required to undertake a variety of tasks as part of the probationary program. If the offender fails to fully comply, that young person can quickly be removed from his or her home and placed into an institutionalized setting. In short, the youthful offender has serious obligations while on a term of juvenile probation.