A Separate System for Juveniles

Based on the assumption that juveniles and adults should be treated differently, a separate justice system for juveniles operates in the United States. In 1994, there were more than 2.7 million arrests of persons under age 18. The vast majority of these arrests were for nonviolent crimes. About 5 percent were for status offenses, such as truancy, running away, or curfew violations.

Juvenile court jurisdiction

The jurisdiction of the juvenile court includes three categories of youths.

  • Delinquents—youths who commit acts that would be defined as criminal for an adult, including misdemeanors and felonies.

  • Status offenders—youths who commit acts that would not be defined as criminal if committed by an adult (for example, truancy, running away from home, and curfew violations).

  • Dependent and neglected children—youths who are deprived and in need of support and supervision.

Nationally, about 75 percent of the cases referred to juvenile courts are delinquency cases (about 1.5 million each year). About 60 percent of these cases involve property crimes. A significant number of cases heard in juvenile court are status offenses.

Age is the most important obvious criterion separating the juvenile court from the adult criminal court. State laws vary in the minimum and maximum age restrictions. Under common law, the minimum age for holding a person accountable for criminal behavior is 7. Maximum age is the age when a person is defined as an adult and no longer subject to the authority of juvenile court. Most states set the maximum age at 17 years of age or below.

Police discretion

Police exercise enormous discretion in dealing with juvenile offenders. They have the following options:

  • Release and warn.

  • Release and file a report.

  • Take the youth to the police station and make a referral to a community youth‐services agency.

  • Refer to juvenile court intake, without detention.

  • Refer to juvenile court intake, with detention.

Over 70 percent of the juveniles who are arrested by the police are referred to the court. But many contacts between the police and juveniles are never recorded because the police handle things informally. For offenses such as curfew violations, running away, and trespassing, the police may warn the youth and/or inform the parents. Sometimes police refer juveniles to social‐service agencies, a practice called diversion, which removes the juvenile from the juvenile justice system and avoids any negative consequences that might attach to labeling a youth “delinquent.”

The most important factor influencing police decisions regarding juveniles is the seriousness of the crime. Studies indicate that nonlegal factors such as the youth's race, class, and sex, and the police officer's perception of the youth's demeanor also affect police decision making.

Criminal procedure

In dealing with juveniles, police issue Miranda warnings to youths prior to custodial interrogation. On the issue of unreasonable searches and seizures, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that school officials can conduct warrantless searches of students and their lockers if they have reasonable suspicion that the searches will yield evidence of school or criminal law violations.


A police or school referral to juvenile court can be made with or without detention. Detention is the temporary jailing of youths who are awaiting disposition of their cases. Most state laws require a detention hearing before a juvenile court judge can hear a case. The purpose is to decide whether to release the child to his or her parents or retain custody. The major purposes for locking up juveniles in detention centers are

  • To secure their presence at court proceedings.

  • To hold those who can't be sent home because parental supervision is lacking.

  • To prevent them from harming themselves and to prevent crimes (preventive detention).

  • To punish.

Who are the youths in detention? About 500,000 juveniles are now detained each year, and the number of juvenile detainees increased steadily during the 1990s. About two‐thirds of the juveniles in detention are awaiting adjudication.

Overcrowding is the norm. Conditions in juvenile detention centers are poor, and abuse is often reported. Overcrowding got so bad in New York City in 1998 that officials began detaining boys as young as 10 on a barge anchored in the East River, a few hundred yards from Rikers Island. Child‐welfare advocates criticized using the barge because its layout made it difficult to segregate newly arrested children from convicted youths awaiting transfer to juvenile prisons. Without a doubt, many youthful detainees could be supervised in the community without jeopardizing public safety.

Not all juveniles go to detention centers. Some are housed in adult jails. The mixing of juveniles and adults in adult jails is considered unjust and remains a problem. Since the 1970s, the juvenile justice system has sought to place juveniles in separate facilities to shield them from the criminogenic influences (those tending to produce crime or criminals) of older, adult offenders. Removing children from jails is an ongoing reform initiative. The Juvenile Justice and Juvenile Delinquency Prevention Act (1974) requires the removal of status offenders from the juvenile justice system. It also mandates the detaining and incarcerating of juvenile offenders in separate facilities from adults. (Note that the two major points of the law should be understood independently. Remove juveniles who have committed status offenses from the juvenile justice system, and remove most juvenile offenders from adult jails.)

Unlike adult court, the juvenile justice system doesn't provide bail or release on recognizance. In most states, the child must be released to the guardianship of parents or relatives, who must assume responsibility for the child. Many states deny juveniles the right to bail.


If the police decide to refer a youth to juvenile court rather than handle the case informally, the case goes to a probation officer working in an intake unit of the juvenile court. The major function of intake is to decide whether a petition should be filed against a juvenile. In making the intake decision, a probation officer determines whether there is probable cause to believe the accused youth committed a crime. The intake officer exercises considerable discretion in making this decision. The seriousness of the current offense and prior criminal record weigh heavily in intake.

If the probation officer does not recommend a petition, the officer can dismiss the charges, place the child on informal probation, or refer the child to a community agency. Under informal probation, either the police or a probation agency supervises the youth for a period of time and monitors the youth to make sure he or she complies with conditions of probation. If the youth violates any of the conditions of probation, an intake officer can file a petition for the original offense and refer the case to juvenile court.

The filing of a petition both signifies that there is enough evidence supporting the charges against a youth to warrant further court processing and authorizes a hearing before a juvenile court judge. Each year, about a half million to a million court referrals result in the filing of a petition.


In 1994, over 12,000 delinquency cases were moved to adult criminal court by a process called certification (waiver of jurisdiction). State and federal statutes specify the age of young offenders (usually 16 or 17) at which criminal courts have jurisdiction and provide for waiver. The decision as to whether to transfer a case is made by a juvenile court judge at a transfer hearing.

In some states, waivers can apply to juveniles age 16 and over regardless of offense. In other states waivers can occur only for felonies. The effect of a waiver is to deny a juvenile the protection of the juvenile court and to subject the juvenile to the possibility of receiving harsh punishment. The Supreme Court ruled in Stanford v. Kentucky (1989) that the death penalty can be imposed for crimes committed by juveniles as young as 16.

Adjudication in juvenile court

During an adjudication (or fact‐finding) hearing, a juvenile court judge decides whether or not there is proof beyond a reasonable doubt to label a youth “delinquent.” Rights afforded to juveniles include

  • The right to notice of charges.

  • The right to counsel.

  • The right to confront witnesses.

  • The right to cross‐examine witnesses.

  • The privilege against self‐incrimination.

Juveniles have no right to a jury trial. Whereas in adult criminal courts hearsay is inadmissible, there are no similar restrictions on the introduction of hearsay in juvenile courts. While adult criminal trials are open and formal, juvenile hearings are closed and informal. Parens patriae is the basis for denying juveniles full constitutional protections. Although supporters of the juvenile court argue that there is no need for such protections because the juvenile court is set up to protect children, these protections are not built into the juvenile court process.


If a judge finds a youth delinquent, a disposition hearing (which is similar to a sentencing hearing) is held. The purpose is to determine whether the youth is to be put on probation or placed in an institution. About half of the states grant judges the power to sentence youth to an indefinite period of confinement lasting until the youth reaches majority age. More than 80 percent of the adjudicated delinquents get probation. At any given time, more than 500,000 youths are on probation. Besides probation, judges have a variety of other community‐based correctional dispositions (for example, halfway houses and foster homes) to choose from.


More than 100,000 juveniles were serving time in America's juvenile institutions in 1998. A juvenile court can commit a delinquent to a state training school, a ranch, a private residential treatment facility, or a juvenile prison. Training schools exist in every state except Massachusetts, which abolished them in the 1970s. Most hold serious delinquents. Almost all are state operated and controlled. To better handle violent youths, some states have created more secure facilities called juvenile prisons.

Some of the worst conditions in juvenile corrections can be found among the growing number of privately operated prisons, whether those built specifically for one state or those that take juveniles from across the country. Only 5 percent of the nation's juvenile prisons are operated by private, for‐profit companies. As their numbers grow, however, their regulation has become one of the hottest issues in juvenile justice. In April 1998, Colorado officials shut down a juvenile prison operated by the Rebound Corporation after a mentally ill 13‐year‐old's suicide led to an investigation that uncovered repeated instances of physical and sexual abuse. This private prison housed offenders from six states. In July 1998, the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana, an offshoot of the Southern Poverty Law Center, filed a federal lawsuit against a private prison for juveniles in Tallulah, Louisiana, to stop brutality and neglect.

Recognizing the problem of cruel and inhumane conditions in juvenile prisons, the U.S. Department of Justice began a series of investigations into state juvenile systems. In a recent investigation of Georgia's juvenile correctional institutions, the DOJ threatened to take over the state's juvenile system, charging a “pattern of egregious conditions violating the federal rights of youth,” including the use of pepper spray to restrain mentally ill youths, a lack of textbooks, and guards who routinely stripped young inmates and locked them in their cells for days. In November 1998, the DOJ sued the state of Louisiana, believed to have the worst juvenile prisons in the nation, with failing to protect youthful inmates from brutality by guards and providing inadequate education and medical and mental health care.

A series of Supreme Court decisions and state laws have mandated a higher standard for juvenile prisons than for adult prisons. There is supposed to be more schooling, medical care, and security because the young offenders have been adjudicated delinquent rather than convicted of crimes as adults and therefore are held for rehabilitation rather than punishment. Critics contend that some private prisons, to earn a profit, scrimp on money for education and mental health treatment in states that already spend little in those areas. Critics also assert that these prisons keep staff wages and inmate services at a minimum while taking in as many young inmates as possible.

After institutionalization

The postincarceration stage involves parole. A parole officer supervises youthful offenders in the community. Young parolees can have their paroles revoked and be returned to institutions. Juvenile parolees have no due process rights in parole revocation. Parole and other aftercare programs are supplemented with electronic monitoring, treatment, education, work training, and intensive parole supervision.