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When a Young Person is Charged With a Crime

A Look at What Happens in Juvenile Court

“Juvenile justice” is an umbrella term for the special procedures set up by every state to deal with young people whose cases belong in juvenile court. Juvenile courts handle most of the cases in which young people (usually called “juveniles” or “minors”) are accused of committing crimes. Of course, the treatment of juveniles differs from state to state, judge to judge, cop to cop. And if differences of opinion generally exist about “getting tough on crime,” the conflicting opinions on how to deal with minors accused of crimes are greater still.

Young People Come to the Attention of the Juvenile Court When They:
  • commit what would be a crime if it were committed by an adult
  • commit an offense such as truancy or disobedience of a parent that isn’t a crime unless you are a child, or
  • are abused or neglected by their parents.

The following is a brief overview of how juvenile cases typically flow through the system. A prosecutor or a juvenile court “intake” officer (often a probation officer) decides whether to:

  1. dismiss the matter
  2. handle the matter informally, or
  3. “petition” the matter (file formal charges).

In some localities, the probation officer makes only a preliminary assessment of whether to file formal charges, and leaves the final decision to a prosecutor.

A decision to proceed informally often results in the minor’s having to appear before a probation officer or a judge. The minor may receive a stern lecture, and may also be required to attend counseling sessions or after-school classes, repay the victim for damaged property or pay a fine, perform community service work or go on probation. If the intake officer suspects that a minor taken into custody has been abused or neglected, proceedings to remove the minor from the custody of parents or guardians may also be started.

If the decision is to proceed formally, the intake officer or prosecutor files a petition and the case is placed on the juvenile court’s calendar. (In large cities, juvenile courts may handle over 300 cases each day.)

The minor is arraigned (formally charged) before a juvenile court judge or referee. At this point, the juvenile court either takes jurisdiction of the case or waives (transfers) the case to adult criminal court.

If the minor is a juvenile but the crime or the juvenile’s personal characteristics indicate that the case should be handled in regular court, the judge conducts a “fitness hearing” to determine whether the minor should be tried as an juvenile. As younger and younger minors commit ever more violent crimes, these fitness hearings are becoming more common.

If the case remains in juvenile court, the minor either enters into a plea agreement or faces trial (often called an “adjudication”).

If, after trial, the juvenile court judge “sustains the petition” (concludes that the charges are true), the judge decides on an appropriate sentence (usually referred to as a disposition).

Post-disposition hearings may occur. For example, a judge’s disposition order may require a minor to appear in court periodically so that the judge can monitor the minor’s behavior.

Juvenile Justice Lingo

Juvenile courts tend to have their own jargon, in part to portray a gentler image than adult criminal courts. Some of the unique terms that you may encounter if you become involved in juvenile court proceedings are as follows:

Adjudication: A juvenile court trial, similar to an adult trial.

Admission of Petition: The juvenile court counterpart to a guilty plea.

Camp: A locked facility for juvenile offenders. Camps often house minors who will be locked up for many weeks or months, while juvenile halls tend to be temporary holding facilities. States may have various types of camps differing in degrees of security, rigidity and facilities. Many camps have school facilities.

Custody order: An arrest warrant.

Dependency court: A branch of the juvenile court that hears cases involving minors who have allegedly been neglected or abused by parents or guardians.

Detention order: An order that a minor be placed in custody.

Disposition: A juvenile court sentence or other final order, which juvenile court regulars often shorten to “dispo.”

Dispositional hearing: A sentencing hearing.

Fact-finding hearing: Along with “adjudication,” a juvenile court term for a trial.

Fitness hearing: A hearing conducted in juvenile court to decide whether a juvenile is fit to be tried as a juvenile–as opposed to a trial in regular court–because of the underlying circumstances.

Infant: A minor, in most states a person under the age of 18. (Few teenagers appreciate being referred to as infants!)

Involved: The juvenile court equivalent of “guilty.”

Juvenile Hall: A jail (or temporary holding facility) for minors.

Petition: The juvenile court equivalent of a criminal complaint charging a child with an act that incurs the jurisdiction of the juvenile court, including 1) a criminal act, 2) a status offense (truancy, disobedience) or 3) parental neglect or abuse.

Referee: A judicial officer, usually a lawyer appointed by a court’s presiding judge, who performs many of a judge’s functions but who has not been formally elected or appointed as a judge. For all practical purposes, his decisions are equivalent to those of a judge.

Respondent: A juvenile court defendant.

Suitable Placement: A court order removing a juvenile from the juvenile’s parental home and placing the juvenile into a foster home, a group home, a treatment facility, a camp or some other type of placement.

Sustained (Not Sustained): The equivalent of a verdict, a juvenile court finding that the charge in a petition is (or is not) true.

Ward of the court: A minor who is under the jurisdiction of the juvenile court.

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