Definition of a Juvenile
Federal law (18 U.S.C.S. § 5031) defines a juvenile (also called a minor) as an individual under eighteen years old. Juvenile delinquency is the term used to describe the violation of a federal law of the United States in which, had the juvenile been an adult, would be a crime. A juvenile can have proceedings brought against them up until their twenty-first birthday for a violation of federal law that they committed prior to their eighteenth birthday. For example, if a juvenile commits a crime at sixteen years old, federal authorities have until that juvenile’s twenty-first birthday to initiate a proceeding against them. When that juvenile’s twenty-first birthday occurs, this statute is no longer applicable, and they can (generally) be tried as an adult.
Juveniles and the Criminal Justice System
The criminal court system for juveniles operates differently and separately from the criminal court system for adults. This is because in the justice system juveniles are not treated the same as adults. Though violating the same statute an adult would be deemed to have violated, a juvenile is charged with committing a delinquent act, not a criminal offense.
The purpose of the juvenile criminal justice system is to rehabilitate the juvenile. Also, the offenses that juveniles commit are usually smaller crimes, and therefore do not warrant the same punishments as those committed by adults. Further, the purpose of juvenile rehabilitation is to keep them engaged with society and the community. Because they are still of tender years, their behavior can still be corrected and, with guidance, they can learn from their mistakes.
However, despite these differences, juveniles are still entitled to many of the same basic constitutional rights that an adult is entitled to. In regard to searches of a juvenile or a seizure upon being taken into custody, the juvenile is still protected by the Fourth Amendment’s probable cause standard. This means that a juvenile cannot be taken into police custody by law enforcement unless those officers have a warrant based on “probable cause” that a crime has been committed by a juvenile. [New Jersey v. T.L.O., 469 U.S. 325 (1985)] However, in a school setting, the Supreme Court has held that a standard of only reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing can suffice for a search of a juvenile if the measures taken are reasonable and not excessive. [Safford Unified Sch. Dist. #1 v. Redding, 557 U.S. 364 (2009)]
Juveniles also have the right to notice of the charges against them, the right to confront witnesses against them, the right to have counsel (hired or state-appointed) represent them in juvenile proceedings, and the right to remain silent. [In re Gault, 387 U.S. 1 (1967)] In regard to the latter, the Supreme Court of the United States has held that a juvenile’s age must be considered when determining whether their Miranda rights were violated by authorities. Here, a juvenile is given special treatment where an adult would not. This again is based on the inherent differences between a juvenile’s and an adult’s mental capacity and understanding of the world. Because of their youth, a juvenile would be more apt to submit to questioning by law enforcement and not feel free to leave, whereas an adult would understand they were under no obligation to respond to police questioning. [J. D. B. v. North Carolina, 564 U.S. 261 (2011)].
Juvenile Court System
Juveniles can be brought into the justice system in different ways. They can be arrested by a police officer for an alleged violation of a law, or they may be referred to law enforcement by a parent or school official. When a juvenile is taken into custody, they must be advised of their constitutional rights in the same way an adult would be advised. [18 U.S.C.A. § 5033] The U.S. Code also mandates that the juvenile must be advised of their rights in a language they are able to understand. Further, the Attorney General and the juvenile’s parents or guardians must also be notified of the juvenile’s custody and the nature of the offense. [18 U.S.C.A. § 5033] The time a juvenile remains in detainment before being brought before a magistrate must not exceed a “reasonable period of time.” [18 U.S.C.A. § 5033]. There is not a set time for what is considered a “reasonable period of time”. Rather, courts have taken a fact-intensive approach in determining whether the time before a juvenile is brought before a magistrate is reasonable.
Many times, after a juvenile is referred to law enforcement, they are released to their parents or guardians with a warning or they are referred to the juvenile court system. Once referred to the court system, the case against the juvenile can either be dismissed, resolved informally, or formal proceedings can be initiated. With an informal proceeding, the juvenile appears before an official, such as a magistrate, and the juvenile is usually ordered to attend counselling sessions, pay a fine, repay their victim for any damages incurred, or perform community service. However, no official charges are brought against the juvenile.
If formal proceedings are initiated, then proceedings are initiated against a juvenile in court. Juveniles can be tried in the adult criminal court system under certain circumstances. However, this is a rare option, and reserved for more severe cases. When this happens, it is called a “wavier”. Many factors are taken under consideration before this step is taken. Examples of these factors include whether the juvenile is a repeat offender, the failure of previous rehabilitation efforts, and the nature of the offense alleged to have been committed by the juvenile. The latter is usually defined as crimes involving a controlled substance or violent crimes, such as homicide, sex offenses, or aggravated assault.
A juvenile may be released from detainment to their parents or to their guardian with the understanding that the juvenile will return on the court date. Alternatively, the juvenile may be detained further if it is decided that his detainment is needed to ensure their appearance before the court or to ensure the safety of others. [18 USCS § 5034].
Many juveniles do enter into a plea agreement in exchange for complying with rehabilitation orders, or the judge orders the juvenile to comply with proscribed rehabilitation orders via a diversion program. If the case proceeds, then an adjudicatory hearing is held, which is the equivalent of an adult case proceeding to trial. A juvenile is not entitled to the right to a trial by jury. [McKeiver v. Pennsylvania, 403 U.S. 528 (1971)]. The reason for this distinction stems from the notion that juvenile delinquents are not treated as adult offenders and thereby a trial by jury is not essential.
In this proceeding, the juvenile is held to be either a delinquent or not a delinquent, which is the equivalent of being held “guilty” or “not guilty” in an adult criminal proceeding. A juvenile usually is ordered by a magistrate to attend counselling sessions or perform community service as their “punishment.” These rehabilitation programs are meant to reform the juvenile and are the preferred sentences for a young offender. Sometimes, however, a juvenile does serve time in a juvenile facility. Further, a juvenile’s criminal record is usually sealed from the public, though it may impede the juvenile further in life such as in an application to the military.
In the criminal justice system, a juvenile is held to a different standard than adults, sometimes with more protections, sometimes with less. This originates from the policy that juveniles are not adults. The end objective is to rehabilitate the juvenile and prevent them from becoming adult offenders. The juvenile justice system, thus, enables juveniles to overcome their offenses in their early life, repay their debt without the imposition of adult sentences, and grow into productive members of society.