The juvenile justice system is the structure of the criminal legal system that deals with crimes committed by minors, usually between the ages of 10 and 18 years. The upper age of eligibility is determined by the juvenile law of each state, which varies. A juvenile crime is any offense that could be committed by an adult but that is committed by a juvenile. There are also "status offenses" that may only be committed by a juvenile, such as curfew violations, running away, truancy, and underage alcohol consumption. In the juvenile justice system, youth offenders are not tried as adults, and their cases are heard in a separate court designed for juveniles.
According to LawyerShop.com, "The juvenile justice 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." Prior to 1899, child offenders over the age of seven were imprisoned with adults. Political and social reformers, supported by psychological research, began a shift in society's views on juvenile offenders and began establishing facilities for rehabilitation rather than punishment. According to LawyerShop.com, these changes were based upon a conviction that "society had a responsibility to recover the lives of its young offenders before they became absorbed in the criminal activity they were taking part in." Through the juvenile justice system, the state exercised parental authority and took responsibility for youths until they were either rehabilitated, or aged out of the system by becoming adults.
The juvenile justice system operates according to the premise that youth are fundamentally different than adults, both in terms of level of responsibility and potential for rehabilitation. The treatment and successful reintegration of youth into society are the primary goals of the juvenile justice system, along with overall public safety.
Under federal law, all persons under the age of 18 are considered juveniles. Each state, however, decides who, based upon age, may be tried in juvenile courts. Cases can be moved from criminal court to juvenile court, and vice versa, under varying circumstances determined by state law. Even if a juvenile is tried in the criminal court, he may be treated as a "youthful offender," a status that may provide a closed hearing (as opposed to a public hearing in criminal court), and may allow the juvenile's record to be erased when he turns 21.
All states allow juveniles to be tried as adults in criminal court under certain circumstances. According to LawInfo.com, many state legislatures "statutorily exclude certain (usually serious) offenses from the jurisdiction of the juvenile court regardless of the age of the accused." In addition, federal prosecutors and many state prosecutors decide whether to file criminal charges against the juvenile directly in adult criminal court or to proceed through the juvenile justice process. Similarly, the juvenile court may order the juvenile to criminal court for trial as an adult.
Juveniles are afforded many of the same safeguards provided in adult criminal trials, including the right to trial, the right against self-incrimination, and the right to call witnesses. In most states, however, juveniles tried in juvenile court are not entitled to a jury. In addition, juveniles in the juvenile justice system may not avoid detention by posting bail.
The privacy of juvenile offenders is strictly guarded, according to LawInfo.com: "Most juvenile court proceedings are closed to the public, and juvenile records are highly confidential."
Jamie J. Spannhake has been writing legal and wellness-related articles since 2003. Her articles have appeared in “Law Practice” magazine, The Complete Lawyer website, Electronically In Touch webzine, “Brooklyn Journal of International Law,” and “Cumberland Law Review.” Spannhake received her Juris Doctorate from Brooklyn Law School and her certification as a health coach from the Institute for Integrative Nutrition.