States have recognized that in most cases, juvenile offenders should be treated separately from the adult criminal justice system and have set up juvenile delinquency courts to handle minors who violate the law. The policies and procedures in juvenile court are often different from those in adult court, however, minors are still entitled to many of the same rights and protections as adults. In juvenile court, the stated focus is on rehabilitating the minor so that he or she can be an active and law-abiding citizen. This often means that juveniles who are adjudicated guilty of criminal offenses may face more intensive terms of probation than adults. Minors accused of the most serious felony offenses can have their cases transferred to adult criminal court and face prosecution there.The Juvenile Court Process
The first step in a typical juvenile court case is a minor’s arrest for a criminal offense. The minor will be referred to the juvenile probation department, who will determine whether the minor should be cited out and provided a future date to return to court or held in custody pending his or her detention hearing. Many low-level misdemeanors will be referred for diversion. In other cases, the probation department will submit the case to the District Attorney’s juvenile division, who will determine whether or not to file a petition against the minor.
At the detention hearing, the judge will decide whether the minor should be held in custody during the case or can be released. If released, the minor may have to comply with strict terms and conditions of release, such as a curfew, drug testing, intensive monitoring or even electronic home monitoring.
For the most serious felony-level offenses, the prosecutor may request a fitness hearing to determine whether the case should be transferred to adult court criminal court. If the matter stays in juvenile court, the minor would return for his or her jurisdiction/adjudication hearing, which is equivalent to a trial. Unlike criminal courts, juries are not used for these hearings and the judge would determine whether or not the minor is guilty.Sentencing and Probation
If the juvenile petition is sustained, the final step of the juvenile court process is the disposition hearing, which is equivalent to sentencing in adult criminal court.
When a minor is placed on probation, his or her compliance with the terms and conditions of probation will be closely monitored by the juvenile probation department. The minor will typically be required to make periodic court appearances. If there have been any violations of probation, the judge can add new terms of probation or he can order that the minor be taken into custody.
Increasingly, juvenile courts nationwide are moving towards a system that encourages community control and having the minor remain in his or her local community rather than being removed from their home and sent to locked juvenile detention facilities. Juvenile probation officers will closely monitor the minor’s compliance with the terms of his or her disposition and will report any violations. Minors in juvenile court have the right to appeal decisions or dispositions and have that matter determined by an appellate court.