In most states, children are not considered to be criminally responsible until they reach age 18. Juvenile law is a segment of criminal law with its own distinct laws and procedures. Offenders are dealt with under the juvenile code, which provides for primarily rehabilitative and educational methods for addressing juvenile delinquency.
While some juveniles may still be prosecuted as adults at earlier ages due to the nature of their offenses, most will be processed through the juvenile justice system. A minor will generally be represented by a juvenile law attorney who is familiar with the juvenile code and the rehabilitative approaches used within the juvenile system.
The Juvenile Justice System
Juvenile courts are typically designed to handle three main types of legal matters involving minors. The primary focus of juvenile court is on rehabilitation instead of punishment. A juvenile lawyer will normally work with both the child as well as with his or her family. The juvenile justice system generally handles:
- juveniles who are accused of committing criminal offenses,
- those who are truant or delinquent, and
- those involved in cases of abuse and neglect.
In most states, children who are younger than a specified age are considered to be too young to be prosecuted in adult court or adjudicated in juvenile court. Most states set that minimum age at 7 years old. Some states set the age under which young offenders are prosecuted in juvenile court at age 18 while others establish it at age 16. If the crime is serious enough, many states allow minors as young as 14 to be prosecuted as adults and face adult punishments.
How Juvenile Cases Are Handled
The manner in which a juvenile prosecutor and a juvenile court judge handle a particular case depends on how severe the alleged offense is. In many cases, the matter will be processed through juvenile court. In very serious cases, the prosecutor may instead choose to charge the juvenile as an adult, forwarding the case to the criminal court system.
If the judge in a juvenile case determines that the prosecutor has proved the alleged offenses against the juvenile defendant, the sentence will then depend on the severity of the case. Less severe matters may result in the juvenile being placed on probation. In more serious cases, the judge may instead sentence the youthful offender to a juvenile correctional facility. In less serious matters, an attorney is sometimes able to negotiate a deal with the prosecutor for the client to complete certain educational and rehabilitative activities in exchange for no charges being filed.
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.
Juvenile law is significantly different from regular criminal law in that adult criminal law is focused primarily on punishment while the juvenile code is focused more on rehabilitating young people so that they can start fresh.
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.