The juvenile justice system has its origins dating back to the early 20th century in the US. There are several differences between how states deal with juveniles who commit crimes and adults who commit crimes. We will explore some of the reasons for these differences below and look at the major structures of the juvenile justice system. There are times in which teachers may have to deal with students who have had experiences with law enforcement. Therefore, educators need to be familiar.
A major difference between adults and juveniles is brain development. The mind of a teenager is still under construction, and this process may last into their late twenties. With the lack of reasoning skills and experience combined with a fully functional body, young people can sometimes make poor choices.
A major concern of law enforcement agencies focusing on youth is that young people do not get stuck in the system. For this reason, extra is taken to ensure a poor decision at 15 does not become a curse for the offender’s life.
One advantage to the lack of being fully developed mentally for youth offenders is that it is still easier to turn their lives around. A hardened criminal in his 30s is likelier to stay that way than a 15-year-old kid who did something stupid on a dare. Given their youth, it is easier to guide them in the right direction if proper intervention is taken.
Therefore, a young person’s lack of experience and maturity can be a blessing and a curse. In terms of pros, if a juvenile makes a mistake, it is easier to get their life back on track. However, in terms of cons, the lack of experience means they may not think things through before making a poor life-altering choice.
If a child is accused of a crime, they must be provided with the following information
- The charges against them
- Fifth amendment rights
- Right to a lawyer (for free if necessary)
- Right to confront witnesses
All of the above are similar to the rights of adults. In addition, juveniles cannot be tried twice for the same crime.
The language used in the juvenile system is slightly different from the adult system. Below are some examples.
- The word “guilty” or “convicted” is not used; instead, the word “responsible” is
- There are no “indictments”; rather, the word “petition” is used
- Juveniles do not plead guilty or not guilty instead, they admit or deny the petition
- The phrase “found guilty” is not used; instead, the phrase “petition found true” is
- There are no “trials”; instead, they are called “adjudication.”
- Juveniles are not “sentenced”; instead, there is a “disposition.”
These terms are used to reduce the risk of the youth being labeled as a criminal. For teachers, these terms are somewhat confusing but it is important to understand them in order to communicate with law enforcement agents.
When a youth is arrested, they are taken to a detention center (jail) for youth offenders. It varies from state to state, but generally, there must be a hearing to determine if the youth needs to stay in the detention center or can go home within 48 hours of their arrival. During this time, the youth will have various forms completed and work with an intake officer who can make recommendations to the judge about what to do with the child. Often, suppose the offense is not serious, and the child is not a repeat offender. In that case, they will be released to their parents until the prosecutor decides whether to file a petition.
If the offense was small, a petition is never filed, which is an example of an informal way of handling the situation. The intake officer or a counselor will deal with the infraction through other means such as community service. Another option is a diversion program. Diversion programs are services offered to the child in place of going to a youth facility (juvenile prison). The goal is always to keep kids out of the system as much as possible. In all of these examples, the youth must admit the wrong they committed to avoid a formal petition.
If a petition is filed formally, the process is similar to an adult trial. If the youth is found responsible, there must be a disposition to determine the punishment. The youth could be placed in the youth facility, moved to foster care, or face various forms of psychological testing to determine what mental health interventions are needed. Lastly, probation is also offered in which a juvenile is supervised by a probation officer for a set period of time. If the juvenile breaks any probation expectations, they could face a warrant for their arrest.
If the offense a child commits is serious enough, they can be tried as an adult. Examples include murder, rape, kidnapping, and other serious offenses. Often multiple crimes are committed at once, pushing the offense into adult court. For example, a male commits kidnapping and rape against the same person. Generally, the minimum age for trying someone as an adult is 14.
When young people make mistakes, teachers need to be able to support them by making adjustments to the academic expectations when possible. Students on probation or facing a judge have much larger problems than they are facing in comparison to learning algebra or writing an essay. In addition, the teachers may need to work with the probation officers to provide evidence the youth is meeting the judge’s expectations.