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Juvenile Crime

What are Juvenile Crimes?

Juvenile crime is an area of criminal law that deals with the criminal activities of offenders who have not reached eighteen years of age. Typically, juvenile offenders will receive less severe forms of punishment than that of an adult and will enter the juvenile justice system rather than the adult criminal system.

Thus, although many of the crimes committed by juveniles are similar or the same as adult crimes, juveniles are subject to different laws and procedures than adults who have been charged with those crimes.

Laws governing juvenile crime law are mainly governed by state law and regulated on a state by state basis, with most states enacting a juvenile criminal code through legislation. Typically, states determine the rules in how a juvenile may be questioned, how they may be taken into custody, conditions for a juvenile's supervision, restitution orders, and other aspects of juvenile criminal procedure.

In several states, the maximum age to be considered for juvenile crime is sixteen or seventeen. Most states consider a child aged fourteen and older to be capable of intentionally committing a crime.

In contrast, children ages seven and younger are generally deemed incapable of committing a crime, since they are too young to fully understand the difference between right and wrong in the eyes of the law.

However, young children may be held liable for committing the crime of homicide, if the crime was particularly egregious, or if the juvenile is a repeat offender. For instance, a juvenile may be tried as an adult for the crimes of rape or for crimes of repeated theft.

How Does the Juvenile Justice System Work?

Generally, juveniles cases are heard in special juvenile courts. A juvenile court is a court that hears cases dealing with juvenile delinquents, along with issues of child neglect, abandonment, abuse. Juvenile court processes vary from state to state, sometimes even county to county, but there is a typically a common juvenile justice procedure that all juvenile court's follow.

Juvenile courts are considered civil courts, not criminal, as the minor is charged with committing a delinquent act rather than a crime. If convicted, a juvenile court may order a minor to perform community service, pay a fine, remain in home confinement, or even incarceration in a juvenile correction facility (also known as “juvie”). As noted above, in extreme cases a judge may send the minor to a state prison.

What are Some Examples of Juvenile Crime?

Juvenile crime may appear in many different forms, but the most common cases of juvenile crime include:

  • Using a Fake ID: As a minor, you may be prosecuted for using fake identification. Penalties for using a fake ID range from a $500 misdemeanor in some states, all the way to up to a year and a half in prison for crimes of criminal impersonation or forgery.
    • Further, if you use a fake ID to purchase a firearm, that is a felony in most every state, and you may receive up to seven years in prison.
  • Underage Drinking: As a minor, it is illegal to consume alcohol if you are under age 21. Even though you are considered an adult at age 18, you are underage if you consume alcohol before your 21st birthday.
    • Punishments for possessing, consuming, or attempting to purchase alcohol may result in fines, community service, mandatory alcohol awareness classes, or even jail time.
  • Minor in Possession of a Gun: In most states, minors under the age of 18 may not possess handguns without parental permission or authorized supervision.
    In some instances both the minor and the gun owner may be charged for a minor's possession of a gun, with the adult being held criminally liable.
  • Violation of Juvenile Curfew: Juvenile curfew laws restrict the presence of minors in certain locations during certain hours and are typically created by local or state governments as a means of combating juvenile crime.
    • Penalties for violating a curfew law often involve fines, community service, and parents may also be liable.
  • Drug Use: As a juvenile you may be charged with the possession or use of controlled substances. Further, the United States Supreme Court upheld a public school district's authority to randomly drug test middle and high school students who participate in extracurricular activities.
    • If you fail a school drug test, you will likely not be able to participate in extracurricular activities, and if you possess the controlled substances you are likely subject to harsher penalties.

Are Juvenile Crimes Punished in the Same Way as Adult Crimes?

The juvenile justice system generally aims to rehabilitate juvenile offenders rather than punish them. Thus, it is common for juvenile crimes to be remedied using alternative sentencing options rather than jail time. These may include community service work, educational and rehabilitation courses, and payment of criminal fines.

On the other hand, a juvenile offender may sometimes be tried as an adult. This is reserved for more serious crimes and offenses wherein the juvenile defendant made decisions in the same way as an adult.

What are Typical Punishments for a Juvenile Crime?

After deciding a juvenile is guilty, the juvenile justice system then sentences the juvenile. Sentencing is the stage in a criminal case where the judge decides what the punishment will be. The juvenile system has a broad range of sentencing options, which give judges the flexibility to determine what is best for the juvenile. Generally speaking, a sentence can be either incarceration or non-incarceration.

Incarceration means that the juvenile's freedom is restricted. Typical incarceration sentencing options include:

  • Home Confinement: The judge orders a juvenile to remain home for a set period of time with some exceptions (attending school, attending school, seeing a doctor).
  • Placement with Someone Other than a Parent/Guardian: The judge can remove the juvenile from a particular home environment by requiring the juvenile to live with a different relative or live in foster care.
  • Juvenile Detention Halls: The judge can order the juvenile to stay in a detention facility for juvenile offenders. A stay can vary from short periods (less than three months), to long periods (at least six months or several years).
  • Adult Detention Facilities: In some instances, the judge may order the juvenile to stay in facilities for adult populations (like county jail or state prison).

Non-Incarceration, in contrast, are alternative means to rehabilitate the juvenile while still permitting the juvenile to enjoy more freedom than an incarceration option. Non-Incarceration sentencing options include:

  • Monetary Fine: The judge may order the juvenile to pay money to the government, or compensate victims with money.
  • Counseling: The judge may require the juvenile to attend counseling, either in one-on-one settings or in group settings.
  • Community Service: The judge can order the juvenile to complete community service.
  • Electronic Monitoring: The judge may order a wrist or ankle bracelet that the juvenile will have to wear at all times.
    • Electronic monitoring is becoming common, as it allows an individual to avoid direct supervisor (meaning some form of incarceration).
  • Probation: The judge may order the juvenile to complete a probation program. Probation is one of the most common sentences for juveniles.
  • Probation can require a juvenile to do certain things (like complete community service or attend school) or refrain from certain things (getting into more trouble or staying out past certain times).

A judge may use a combination of incarceration and non-incarceration sentencing options when sentencing a juvenile. Each juvenile case has different facts and thus the punishment varies from case to case. The facts of a particular case impact the outcome, meaning it may be smart to discuss the case with a lawyer.

Can a Juvenile Decision Be Appealed?

Juveniles, like adults, have a right to appeal a criminal sentence. A court of appeal is a higher court than the adjudicating judge and can review the adjudicating judge's decisions.

Further, the appeals court can reverse the lower court or change various aspects of the lower court's orders. In the context of juvenile cases, an appeal could reverse a finding of delinquency or change the terms of a sentence.

Besides an appeal, a juvenile can ask the judge to reconsider their previous opinion. The judge retains authority over the case should they need to change their orders in the best interest of the juvenile.

For instance, a judge may change an order to attend school if a better school becomes available for the juvenile to attend. A juvenile can ask the court to change the order rather than wait for the judge to do it of their own accord.

Why Are Juveniles Sometimes Tried as Adults?

In some cases, a juvenile crime case can be moved to the adult criminal system. In certain situations, a juvenile can be tried as an adult even though they are technically still a minor. There are a variety of factors that a court may look at when deciding that a juvenile should be tried as an adult. The most common situations where a juvenile is tried as an adult  include:

  • The type or nature of the crime is so serious that it is believed that the juvenile should be treated like an adult;
  • The juvenile clearly understood the very serious nature of the crime and the consequences of the crime;
  • The juvenile has a history of committing similar serious crimes; and
  • The juvenile has been tried by a court as an adult before. This is sometimes called the “once an adult, always an adult rule.” Once a juvenile has been tried as an adult, they will likely be considered an adult in court if they commit crimes in the future.

Based on recent cases, almost all states now allow juveniles under the age of 18 to be tried in court as adults. This will depend on the circumstances and factors listed above. The specific law and rules change from state to state.

How Old Must a Juvenile Be in Order to Be Tried in Adult Court?

Again, the rules about the age of a minor being tried as an adult change depending on the state you are in. The specific minimum age when a minor can be tried as an adult changes by state. For example, in California, any juvenile over the age of 14 can be tried as an adult. However, in other states, a minor as young as 13 can be tried as an adult. Some states do not allow a minor below the age of 15 to be tried as an adult. The law in your state sets the minimum age for a juvenile to be tried as an adult.

Many things can affect the decision about whether to try a minor as an adult. A judge or court may consider many things (for example, if it was a serious criminal offense and if the minor was aware of the consequences of committing the crime). Prior juvenile criminal records are often very important in the decision.

In some states, a judge is allowed to use their own judgment and opinion to decide whether a juvenile should be tried as an adult. The decision to try a juvenile as an adult and transfer the case to adult court is sometimes called a juvenile waiver.

What Are Some Penalties for a Juvenile Crime?

Normally, juvenile crime tried in a juvenile court leads to lower sentences or penalties. These can include short jail time in a juvenile detention center, smaller fines, and sometimes community service or alternative sentences. Alternative sentences could include things like counseling or rehabilitation. House arrest is also sometimes an option for juveniles when the crime is not very serious.

Other sentencing options such as parole, probation, or community service programs are more likely in juvenile court.

If the juvenile is tried as an adult, it can lead to penalties that are much more serious. The jail time and fines will likely be much higher.

In What Situations Can a Juvenile Be Tried in Adult Court?

Most often when a juvenile is tried as an adult, it is because they have committed a very serious crime. For example, serious crimes include:

  • Murder (typically intentional murder and not cases of manslaughter);
  • Armed robbery (or a robbery committed with some type of weapon); and
  • Rape.

There are other common situations when a juvenile is tried as an adult. Some more common situations include:

  • Direct File – In some states, prosecutors have the power to decide whether a juvenile will be tried as an adult. When prosecutors have the ability to make the decision it is often called “prosecutorial discretion.” Prosecutorial discretion is the term used when the prosecution can use their own judgment and opinion to make a decision.
  • Statutory Exclusion – Some states have laws, called statutes, that automatically require a minor to be tried in adult court in specific cases. States that have these laws immediately transfer the case to adult court. A statutory exclusion often takes into account the minor's age, the severity and type of crime, and whether there is a prior criminal record.

If a juvenile is tried as an adult, the case will be transferred from juvenile court to adult court.

In certain cases, if a decision is made to try a juvenile as an adult, the juvenile can file a “reverse waiver.” A reverse waiver is where a juvenile asks the court to change their decision and send the case back to juvenile court.

Are There Advantages for Juveniles Tried as Adults?

A lawyer will almost always try to prevent a juvenile case from being transferred to an adult criminal court. Most lawyers will recommend that a juvenile case stay in a juvenile court. However, if the case is transferred to adult court, there can be some advantages.

  • Juveniles in adult court will have the right to a jury trial. In juvenile court, there is no right to a jury trial.
  • A jury may sympathize with a juvenile in adult court because they are so young. Therefore, it may be hard for a jury to convict a minor.
  • Juveniles could possibly get lighter sentences in adult court. Remember, this is often not the case. Sentences will depend on the state and court. In juvenile crime cases tried in juvenile court, the penalty is almost always less serious.

Are There Disadvantages for Juveniles Tried as Adults?

There can be many disadvantages for a juvenile tried as an adult. As a result, lawyers almost always argue that the case should not be transferred to adult court. Some of the disadvantages for juveniles to be tried in adult courts include:

  • The juvenile can get a more severe sentence. This will depend on the specific crime committed. Being sentenced to life is a possibility, but it is very rare. Juvenile court sentences have a goal of rehabilitating the juvenile. The sentences are not as serious as in adult court.
  • Many sentences and treatment options that are available in juvenile court are not available in adult court. Rehabilitation and counseling are very common sentences. If in adult court, the juvenile may have to serve time in adult jail or prison instead of a juvenile detention center.
  • A conviction in adult court can have worse consequences on a person's life after jail. In juvenile court, there may be options to limit the access to juvenile criminal records.
  • Adult criminal records are more difficult to seal and expunge. In juvenile court, sealing records or getting one expunged may be much easier. Also, many juvenile records do not transfer to adult records once the person reaches the age of 18.

Are There Alternative Sentencing Options Available for Juvenile Crimes?

As mentioned, juvenile crimes tend to be punished more leniently than adult crimes. Besides the options listed above, alternative sentencing options for juvenile crimes can also involve mandatory counseling sessions as wells as various parole and probation programs. Some juvenile offenders may be allowed an early release if they demonstrate good behavior.

For simple charges such as vandalism or trespassing, the judge may simply order the juvenile defendant to pay a small fine and write an apology letter to the property owner.

When Might a Parent Be Held Liable for Juvenile Crimes?

Parents may be held liable for their juvenile child's crimes, depending on the state. Some states maintain Parental Accountability or Parental Responsibility Laws which hold parents responsible for any crimes committed by their child. The reasoning behind such laws is that parents have a legal duty to supervise and prevent their children from committing crimes and becoming delinquent citizens.

Another motivating factor for such laws is to decrease the juvenile crime rate. Some common examples of crimes that these accountability or responsibility laws may cover include, but are not be limited to the following:

  • Internet Access, Hacking, and Other Computer Crimes: This is a newer area of law due to technological advancements. Computer crimes occur when a computer is used to facilitate traditional crimes and illegal activity such as fraud, revenge porn, and white collar crimes; or, when an offender targets their victim's computer systems to copy, interrupt, destroy, or alter those systems. Parents may be held liable if their child commits any such crimes, with examples of violations including sexting and child pornography distributed electronically, and resulting in heavy legal consequences;
  • Firearm Access: If a child used a firearm when committing their crime, their parent may be held responsible if they owned or controlled the firearm. The parent may not be held liable if the firearm was obtained elsewhere. Generally, the firearm in question must have been owned or controlled by the parent;
  • Car Accidents: Parents could be held responsible if their child causes an accident using their vehicle, and that accident results in injuries. Again, the car used in the accident must belong to the parent of the child in order for the parent to be held responsible; and
  • Property Damage: If any property damage results from an intentional act that the child committed, their parents may be held responsible for that damage.

As previously mentioned, juvenile courts are civil, not criminal. Further, the courts may choose a punishment that they feel best suits the child. Such punishments could include:

  • A lecture;
  • Confinement in a juvenile detention facility;
  • Mandatory schooling;
  • Community service;
  • Probation or parole;
  • Significant fines; and/or
  • A record of the incident being placed on the child's criminal record.

When the child's parent is held responsible for their child's crimes, punishments could include:

  • Payment of fines and court fees;
  • Payment of costs associated with the child's detention, treatment, and supervision;
  • Restitution payments made to the victims;
  • Participation in community service with their child; and/or
  • Jail time.

Again, different states have different laws concerning parental responsibility and accountability. It is important to check your state's laws to determine how comprehensive they may be.

Can Parents Be Held For Their Child's Cyberbullying?

As previously mentioned, parents may be held responsible for any computer crimes their child commits. Whether parents may be held liable for cyberbullying is still an unclear area of this fairly recent area of law. As with most issues, these laws vary by state. Some jurisdictions issue fines against the parents of a child who has bullied others.

If a state has some sort of Parental Accountability or Parental Responsibility laws in place, there will likely be potential criminal liability for cyberbullying. The chances of such liability is greatly increased if the victim of the bullying is severely injured, or dies.

It is important that parents speak to their children about cyberbullying. There are also monitoring apps and software that can be downloaded onto a child's internet devices. This could restrict and observe a child's electronic activity, and help determine if a child is participating in cyberbullying. With this information, parents may be able to step in and stop the bullying before it goes any further.

Do I Need to Hire a Lawyer for Help with Juvenile Crimes?

If you are a minor who has been accused of a crime and are potentially facing consequences of juvenile detention, then you should contact a local juvenile attorney immediately.

An experienced criminal defense attorney can tell you more about your rights as a juvenile and can help you navigate the juvenile criminal system. A lawyer can also appear with you in court and find out whether there are any defenses you can raise against your charges.