Juvenile Law

Author:Jeffrey Lehman, Shirelle Phelps
 
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An area of the law that deals with the actions and well-being of persons who are not yet adults.

In the law a juvenile is defined as a person who is not old enough to be held responsible for criminal acts. In most states and on the federal level, this age threshold is set at 18 years. In Wyoming a juvenile is a person under the age of 19. In some states a juvenile is a person under the age of 17, and in Connecticut, New York, and North Carolina, a juvenile is a person under the age of 16. These age definitions are significant because they determine whether a young person accused of criminal conduct will be charged with a crime in adult court or will be required to appear in juvenile court.

Juvenile courts generally have authority over three categories of children: juveniles accused of criminal conduct; juveniles neglected or abused by their parents or in need of assistance from the state; and juveniles accused of a status offense. This last category refers to conduct that is prohibited only to children, such as absence from school (truancy), flight from home, disobedience of reasonable parental controls, and purchase of alcohol, tobacco, or PORNOGRAPHY.

Originally the term juvenile delinquent referred to any child found to be within the jurisdiction of a juvenile court. It included children accused of status offenses and children in need of state assistance. The term delinquent was not intended to be derogatory: its literal meaning suggested a failure of parents and society to raise the child, not a failure of the child.

The modern trend is to separate and label juveniles based on the reason for their juvenile court appearance and the facts of their case. Many states have created three categories for juveniles: delinquents, abused or neglected children, and children in need of services. Delinquents are juveniles who have committed acts that would result in criminal prosecution if committed by an adult. Abused or neglected children are those who are suffering from physical or emotional abuse or who have committed status offenses or petty criminal offenses. Children in need of services are ones who are not abused or neglected but are needy in some other way. These children are usually from impoverished homes and require improved nutrition and basic health care.

Generally, the procedures for dealing with abused, neglected, and needy children are less formal than the procedures for dealing with alleged delinquents. The subsequent treatment of nondelinquent juveniles by the courts is also markedly different from the treatment of delinquents. Separation of noncriminal cases from criminal cases removes some of the stigma attached to appearance in juvenile court.

The mission of juvenile courts differs from that of adult courts. Juvenile courts do not have the authority to order punishment. Instead, they respond to juvenile misconduct and misfortune by ordering rehabilitative measures or assistance from government agencies. The juvenile court response to misconduct generally is more lenient than the adult court response.

Juvenile court proceedings are conducted in private, whereas adult proceedings are public. Also, whereas adult criminal courts focus on the offense committed and appropriate punishment, juvenile courts focus on the child and seek to meet the child's needs through rehabilitation, supervision, and treatment. Adult courts may deprive adults of their liberty only for the violation of criminal laws. Juvenile courts, by contrast, are empowered to control and confine juveniles based on a broad range of behavior and circumstances.

History

Before the nineteenth century, children were generally considered to be young adults, and they were expected to behave accordingly. Children over the age of seven years who were accused of crimes were prosecuted in adult court. If convicted they could be confined in an adult prison. By the nineteenth century, most states had created separate work farms and reform schools for convicted children, but some states still sent children to adult prisons. Juveniles were not always rehabilitated in prison. After interacting with adult criminals, they often emerged from prison with increased criminal knowledge and an increased resolve to commit crimes.

In the late nineteenth century, progressive social discourse caused a shift in the general

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Trying Juveniles as Adults

In 1899 the U.S. made legal history when the world's first juvenile court opened in Chicago. The court was founded on two basic principles. First, juveniles lacked the maturity to take responsibility for their actions the way adults could. Second, because their character was not yet fully developed, they could be rehabilitated more successfully than adult criminals. More than a century later, these principles remain the benchmarks of juvenile justice in the United States.

In recent years, however, a growing number of juvenile criminals are being tried as adults?much the way they might have been before the advent of juvenile courts. In part this stems from public outrage against children who, in increasing numbers, are committing violent crimes. Interestingly, the overall rate of juvenile crime has been decreasing since 1995. When people see gruesome images on television, such as the Columbine High School shootings in Littleton, Colorado, or the Springfield, Oregon, rampage of 15-year-old Kip Kinkel (who shot both his parents and two classmates), their impression is that juvenile crime is out of control.

Since the early 1990s many states have adopted a "get tough" approach to juvenile justice as a response to the increasingly violent crimes committed by children. As of 2003 many states had adopted legislation that permits more children to be tried as adults. All states have a provision allowing prosecutors to try juveniles as young as 14 as adults under certain circumstances. In some states, such as Indiana, South Dakota, and Vermont, children as young as 10 can be tried as adults.

An example of a "get tough" law is Michigan's Juvenile Waiver Law of 1997. This measure lowered the age that juveniles can automatically be tried as adults. In adopting this law, the state has taken away some of the judge's discretion in deciding whether a minor should be tried as a child or as an adult. Factors such as criminal history, psychiatric evaluation, and the nature of the offender's actions carry less weight when the judge is forced to enter an automatic adult plea.

Another example is California's Proposition 21, which was passed in 2000. This law permits prosecutors to send many juveniles accused of felonies directly to adult court. In effect, the prosecutors are the ones who decide whether a minor should be tried and sentenced within the adult system; this takes away the judge's discretion. Proposition 21 also prohibits the use of what was known as "informal probation" in felonies. This type of PROBATION was offered to first-time juvenile offenders who admitted their guilt and attempted to make restitution. Finally, the proposition requires known gang members to register with police agencies and increases the penalties for crimes such as VANDALISM.

The U.S. JUSTICE DEPARTMENT shows that prosecutors are actively putting these new tougher laws to use against juvenile offenders. A Justice Department study released in 2000 states that violent juvenile offenders are more likely to serve out their sentences...

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