Criminal charges against minors are generally tried in juvenile court rather than in the regular criminal courts. While punishment is still a major aspect of the juvenile court system, the focus of the juvenile court system is most often education and rehabilitation. Usually, minors under the age of 7 will have no criminal responsibility; after the age of 15, juvenile offenders may be treated as adults by the criminal law system. Minors are entitled to almost all of the major constitutional protections (due process); they do not, however, have a right to a public jury trial.
Under many state laws, juvenile offenders (usually under the age of 18) do not commit ‘crimes’; rather, they commit ‘delinquent acts’. Proceedings in the juvenile justice system are called ‘hearings’ rather than ‘trials’. Hearings are held before a judge – the accused minor has no right to a jury trial. Ordinarily, minors accused of first offenses or nonviolent crimes are released without the necessity of bail.
Role of the Court
Juvenile offenders are handled quite differently from their adult counterparts. Because the focus of the juvenile justice system is rehabilitation, the state proceeds not as an adversary but as ‘Parens Patriae’- substitute parents who will determine what is in ‘the minor’s best interests’.
In many states, juvenile hearings are held in closed session; state statutes often provide that the child’s name and the nature of the offense be kept from the media. Some states allow the publication of names where the minor is accused of a felony. The courts have ruled that statutes that make disclosure of the name of a child in a juvenile proceeding a crime are unconstitutional on First Amendment grounds (freedom of press and expression).
At the initial hearing, the judge determines whether the minor had the ability to distinguish between right and wrong and understood the consequences of his/her acts; if so, the child will be prosecuted for the act of delinquency and a juvenile hearing will take place. The prosecutor has the burden of proving that the child was able to appreciate the nature and consequences of his/her unlawful act.
After the initial hearing, in most states, the court will determine whether the minor should be tried as an adult and transferred to the adult criminal court. Since the transfer hearing affects the minor’s substantial rights, the minor is entitled to be represented by counsel and to receive a statement of the reasons for any decision to transfer. There has been an increased tendency by the courts to refer juveniles to the criminal courts, particularly older minors who commit a heinous crime and have a history of criminal conduct or offenses. The judge may ‘waive jurisdiction’ of the juvenile courts and allow transfer of the juvenile to the criminal courts.
In some states, the prosecutor can make a determination as to whether to charge the juvenile in the criminal courts.
Since the goal of the juvenile justice system is to rehabilitate minors who commit delinquent acts, there is also a contemporaneous interest in protecting them from loss of future opportunities due to a criminal record. All states have some form of privacy law, whether keeping the juvenile’s record confidential, sealing the record of the proceeding or actually destroying the record. Certain state and federal agencies involved in law enforcement will generally be able to access sealed records.
Some states have enacted laws that make parents partially responsible for their child’s crimes in cases where the parents have failed to take appropriate steps to control their child’s behavior and conduct. Under these laws, the parent can be charged, prosecuted, fined or even imprisoned. The nature of the charge against parents under parental responsibility laws is generally ‘improper supervision of a minor’. Criminal responsibility, including fines or reimbursement, has been extended in some states to parents of children who vandalize public buildings or are regularly truant.
In both the federal or state courts, juveniles have many of the same constitutional protections as adults charged with a crime. These protections/rights include:
- The right to a written notice of charges
- The right to be represented by an attorney
- The right to confront and cross-examine the state’s witnesses
- The privilege against self-incrimination
- The right to proof of the crime ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’
- The right to bail
The following rights or protection are generally not applicable to juvenile proceedings:
- The right to a jury trial
- Double jeopardy protection (the right not to be tried twice for the same offense) is generally not available where the matter was heard by a master assigned to the case
- The right to an immediate hearing and freedom pretrial detention (where the juvenile is determined to be a serious threat to society)
Search and Seizure
The 4th Amendment of the United States Constitution prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures by state or federal law officers. Searches are permitted if the police can demonstrate to a judge that there is ‘probable cause’ or a reasonable belief that a crime has been committed. If the court determines that there is probable cause, the judge will issue a search warrant specifying what the police are looking for and where they can search. Evidence found during an illegal search cannot be used in court and will be excluded. This type of illegal evidence is known as “Fruit of the Poisoned Tree”. The defendant will be entitled to file a motion to suppress or exclude any such evidence. See Guide to Criminal Procedure for a more extensive discussion of Searches and Seizures.
While public school officials are considered to be governmental officers, they may conduct a search of school lockers and other school property without a search warrant where they have a ‘reasonable suspicion’ that contraband or illegal substances may be found, in order to protect the school environment. The question of whether a search of the person of a student (body search) may be conducted or whether additional protections and exclusion of evidence rules apply to searches conducted at the request of law enforcement officials is unresolved.
Minors determined to be guilty of crimes in the juvenile courts are ordinarily declared to be ‘juvenile delinquents’ or ‘delinquent minors’. After an adjudication of guilt, the court has a fair amount of latitude in determining the appropriate punishment or consequence of the criminal act.
For minor offenses, especially where there is the likelihood of substantial parental involvement and participation in rehabilitation, the court may place the child on probation under the supervision of a juvenile probation officer. The minor will ordinarily be required to report to the probation officer periodically and maintain a good record, obey curfews, and where the minor is in school, attend classes regularly.
For serious offenses and where there is a history of past criminal acts, a minor, generally between the ages of 12-18, may be sentenced to a juvenile detention facility for a specific period or until majority; security at detention centers vary.
Younger children may be placed in foster care where the court determines that such placement is in the child’s best interests, as where the parents are abusive or in order to remove the minor from a harmful social environment.
Limitations on Punishment
Even in those cases where the minor is tried and convicted in a criminal court, in most states, he/she cannot be incarcerated with adult prisoners and must be kept in a separate facility. Minors are probably not subject to the death penalty for homicides committed prior to reaching the age of 16.