In most states, children are not considered to be criminally responsible until they reach age 18. Juvenile court, with its own distinct laws and procedures, handles cases of minors charged with criminal offenses. Offenders are generally dealt with under the juvenile code, which aims to rehabilitate and educate.
Some juveniles may be prosecuted as adults, depending on the nature of the charges and the prosecutor's discretion. But most of the time, minors are processed through the juvenile justice system. A minor will often be represented by a criminal defense attorney familiar with the juvenile code and its rehabilitative approaches.
In most states, children who are younger than 7 years old are considered too young to be prosecuted in adult court or adjudicated in juvenile court. The maximum age at which young offenders are prosecuted in juvenile court is typically set at age 18. However, some states have established this maximum at 16. If the crime is serious enough, many states allow minors as young as 14 to be prosecuted as adults and face adult punishments.
Juvenile courts are typically designed to handle three main types of legal matters involving minors. These include:
- criminal offenses
- status offenses
- cases of abuse and neglect
Many offenses committed by juveniles are not labeled as crimes, per se. These include acts that would not be illegal if an adult performed them. These acts are known as “status offenses,” and they include such acts as:
- Truancy, or skipping school
- Staying out past jurisdiction-specific curfews
- Possession or consumption of alcohol
- Purchasing cigarettes
- Running away from home
Penalties for status offenses are generally less severe than penalties for criminal offenses. They might include driver’s license suspension, fines, counseling or education, or even the placement of the minor with a guardian other than their parent.
Generally, the DUI/DWI laws for underage drivers are stricter than law for adults over 21. While the blood alcohol content limit is 0.08% for adults across the country, the limit is much lower for those under 21. In most states, the BAC limit for an underage driver is 0.02%. However, some states have enacted a zero-tolerance policy. This means that a BAC higher than 0.00% can result in a DUI charge.
The penalties for DUI charges for underage drivers can include license suspension, vehicle impoundment, fines, and community service. Incarceration and probation is possible in some cases. Drivers may also be required to attend classes for drug and alcohol education.
If the judge in a juvenile case determines that the defendant is guilty, the sentence will then depend on the severity of the case. Less severe matters may result in probation. In more serious cases, the judge may instead sentence the offender to a juvenile correctional facility. Sometimes, an attorney is able to negotiate a deal that involves educational and rehabilitative activities in exchange for the charges being dropped.
Even if a juvenile under the age of 17 commits murder and is prosecuted in adult court, he or she cannot be sentenced to death. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2005 that death sentences for minors are unconstitutional.
The information on this page is meant to provide a general overview of the law. The laws in your state and/or city may deviate significantly from those described here. If you have specific questions related to your situation you should speak with a local attorney.