Criminal laws apply to juvenile offenders and minors who commit crimes are typically diverted to juvenile delinquency court for adjudication. The focus of the juvenile justice system is to rehabilitate the minor so that he or she can be a functioning and law-abiding adult. Juvenile judges often stress education and rehabilitative programs as opposed to confinement and other penalties. However, a minor can be sent to a juvenile detention facility or even an adult prison in more serious cases or where all other alternatives have been exhausted. Some of the more common juvenile offenses include: theft, larceny, alcohol offenses, disturbing the peace, drug offenses, vandalism, assault, robbery, criminal trespass, harassment, fraud, burglary, loitering, possession of stolen property, possession of weapons and crimes committed on behalf of gangs. Certain juvenile offenses, such as sex crimes, can carry lifelong registration consequences or may add “strikes” or other sentencing enhancements that can affect the minor for the rest of his or her life.
Additionally, juveniles may be prosecuted for conduct that is prohibited solely based on their age alone, which is commonly called a “status offense.” A status offense is an act that is considered a violation of law only because the person accused of the conduct is a minor. For example, although consuming alcohol and using marijuana is legal in a number of jurisdictions for adults, the same cannot be said for juveniles. Some of these status offenses include: possession of marijuana, possession of alcohol, possession of cigarettes or tobacco products, skipping school (truancy), violating local curfew hours, and driving with any measurable amount of blood alcohol.
In a given year, approximately 400,000 juveniles are arrested, charged, or detained by police due to a status offense. This shows that about 20% of juvenile offenses are for violations that an adult based solely on age would not be prosecuted for. If a juvenile is sent to juvenile court because of a status offense, the court may in all likelihood decide that it is in the interest of justice to pursue an alternative resolution to address the juvenile’s conduct rather than a formal filing. Some of these alternative resolutions may include: community service, counseling, therapy, probation, or just a fine.
However, in other cases the court may decide to move forward with formal proceedings against the juvenile. If formal proceedings are brought against the juvenile for a minor status offense, it is possible that the juvenile can be placed in a facility with others who are accused of more serious and violent crimes. An experienced attorney will be able to highlight the factors that favor the juvenile avoiding formal charges. Some of the common factors that are considered include: the severity of the crime, the minor’s behavior, and the minor’s criminal history or lack of one. Additionally, the court will consider the amount of evidence against the juvenile and whether the juvenile’s parent or guardian is able to regulate the juvenile’s behavior. Due to the lasting repercussions that juveniles face after being accused of a crime it is important to contact an experienced juvenile defense attorney immediately.