Juveniles have a separate court system because our society believes children are different from adults and therefore should be treated differently. Children who commit crimes are generally seen as less responsible for their actions than adult criminals and also as being more capable of changing their ways. In some cases, though, minors may be tried as adults in criminal court.
In most states, juvenile courts have jurisdiction over minors under the age of 18, although a few states have lower cutoff points. Minors in juvenile court who are accused of committing crimes are not charged as criminals, the way adults are, but instead are charged with delinquency.
Constitutional Rights of Juveniles in the Juvenile Court System
In a series of cases starting in the 1960s, the U.S. Supreme Court granted more rights to minors in the juvenile court system. For juveniles facing possible confinement, these rights include the right to
- Be represented by an attorney,
- Be present and question witnesses,
- Claim the 5th Amendment protection against self-incrimination, and
- Receive notice of the charges against them.
Unlike adults in criminal court, juveniles in juvenile court do not have the right to a jury trial.
Congressional Action on the Rights of Juveniles in the Juvenile Court System
In 1974, Congress passed the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA), and amended it in 1980 and 1992. States must abide by the JJDPA’s provisions as a condition of receiving certain federal grants. The JJDPA requires, with some exceptions, that juvenile who have committed “status offenses” (offense types that apply only to juveniles and not adults, such as truancy, running away, and underage drinking), should not be held in secure detention or confinement.
Other provisions of the JJDPA include that delinquents should not be held in adult jails and that delinquents who are confined or detained should not have any contact with adult inmates.
State Laws That Reduced the Rights of Juveniles in the Juvenile Court System
In the 1990s, increasing concern about juvenile crime led to most states passing laws that restricted the rights of juveniles in the juvenile court system. These laws included those that
- Made it easier for juveniles to be tried as adults;
- Gave juvenile courts expanded sentencing options; and
- Removed or lessened juveniles’ rights to keep court records and proceedings confidential.
The number of delinquency cases that the juvenile courts handled rose significantly from the mid-1980s until 1997 and then started to decline. The downward trend continues, but the number of cases is still substantial. The most recent data available show that in 2012, juvenile courts handled more than 1.1 million delinquency cases.
A recent trend among policymakers is to seek alternatives to detention and confinement for delinquent juveniles. The hope is that alternatives such as community treatment, group homes, and intensive supervision will cost less than confinement and produce better results. Students working toward a criminal justice degree will have the opportunity to learn more about the latest proposed strategies to reduce juvenile offending and improve juvenile justice.