What is Juvenile Justice?

Last Updated on May 11, 2022 by Fair Punishment Team

In the United States, the Juvenile justice system is a collection of state and local court-based processes in place to support young people under the age of 18 who are accused of committing a criminal act or breaking the law.

As part of the juvenile justice system, juvenile courts hear cases where a minor has violated the law, and decide on how to process further with regards to punishment or rehabilitation.

Rehabilitative programs are run and managed by state and local juvenile correction agencies.

These programs are aimed at helping young people correct their behavior and prevent any future crimes.

The stages in the Juvenile Justice system

The juvenile justice system is a process with multiple stages, from the youth’s criminal act to sentencing and juvenile corrections.

1. Unlawful behavior

It is common that teenagers across different neighborhoods are involved in minor acts of delinquency. In areas with little police presence, these delinquencies might not be reported or quickly dismissed if a police officer, teacher or other authority can handle the situation peacefully without involving the justice system. 

In neighborhoods with greater police presence, teenagers are more likely to have their unlawful behavior criminalized. 

2. Referral

Initially, a young person enters the juvenile justice system with an arrest, also called a referral. The majority of arrests are made by the police, however, some young people can also be referred by parents, teachers, alleged crime victims or other community members.

3. Diversion or intake

Next, a probation agency, attorney in the prosecutor’s office or intake workers at the juvenile court have to determine whether the case should be dismissed, handled informally or formally processed in a juvenile court.

Studies have shown that cases handled outside the juvenile justice system usually lead to better outcomes than formal processing in court. If a case is diverted from the juvenile court the youth has greater success with future employment and education. This is particularly significant for young people who are accused of low-level demeanors and those without a long, criminal history.

4. Waiver or transfer

Also at the intake stage, some youths who are accused of serious offenses can be transferred, or waived, out of the juvenile court to stand trial in an adult criminal court. In most states, the prosecutor or intake worker has to place a recommendation in front of a juvenile court judge and he makes the transfer decision. However, in some states, transfers can be ordered by a prosecutor. 

Many states also have statutory policies that allow an automatic transfer for any young person accused of a certain offense. In these cases, the juvenile court judge can also transfer the youth back to juvenile court.

5. Detention

For any cases that are to be formally processed in juvenile court, the judge needs to decide whether to permit the young person to remain at home during the period before the formal hearing, or be detained until the hearing takes place. Commonly a detention hearing is convened within 24 hours of the referral or arrest. Usually judges only order pre-trial detention if the youth is deemed dangerous to the community or if there is a flight risk. 

6. The hearing or adjudication

This is when the young person has to stand trial in front of a juvenile court, and he may be found guilty or innocent, or the charges may be dismissed. Similar to the adult justice system, the majority of cases in juvenile court are not contested in court, instead, they are resolved in plea agreements where the youth admits to a lesser charge or similar agreements to defer prosecution. If a case is contested and a hearing does need to take place, the juvenile court judge rules based on the presented evidence in court by the defense attorneys and prosecutors. Juvenile courts hold no jury trials.

7. Disposition

Disposition is similar to a sentencing hearing in adult court. Usually, a probation officer examines the case before the hearing. He interviews the young person and develops an intervention plan. Then during the hearing, the juvenile court judge reviews the plan and hears any additional information from the prosecution, defense attorneys or the young person himself.

8. Juvenile corrections

The majority of juveniles who are found guilty are sentenced to either community supervision (also called probation) or residential placement. 

Probation: This is by far the most common sentence for a youth who committed a crime. Under the arrangements for probation, the young person must remain at home under the supervision of a probation officer. He may also be required to adhere to certain rules, perform community service, pay restitution or participate in mandatory treatment activities. Non-compliance with any of these results and requirements leads to probation violation and possible transfer to a correction facility. He may also need to return to court where a judge has to make a new decision with regards to his sentence, including the violation. 

Placement: Roughly a fourth of convicted youth are removed from their home environment to be placed into a residential facility. These facilities can vary greatly across different states and local communities. Some facilities are smaller with only a few beds, whereas others have a large number of beds. Some residential facilities resemble adult prisons, others are similar to group homes or residential treatment centers for child welfare or mental health support. 

9. Aftercare

For all young people who were convicted of a crime and were placed in a correctional institution, this final phase is essential. Any aftercare, often provided by probation officers, will help to support and supervise the youth during their transition back into the community. 

What is the difference between juvenile and adult justice?

The shared goal of a community is to live safely and the justice system protects this goal. The juvenile justice system works on a different approach to the adult court system. Juvenile justice aims to help young people avoid future crimes and supports minors to grow into law-abiding adults. This means that usually juvenile courts protect the confidentiality of young criminals, and they also receive different sentences.