What Is Juvenile Law?

Juvenile law is the area of jurisprudence that encompasses minors. A minor is an individual who has not reached the age of majority, which may be between the ages sixteen and nineteen, depending on the jurisdiction. The law does not give juveniles the same responsibility as adults for crimes they may have committed. Therefore, a minor who is guilty of a crime in juvenile court may not have the same consequences as an adult found guilty in adult criminal court for the same or similar crime.

A main reason juveniles who have been found guilty of a crime may receive different consequences than an adult is that the goal/purpose of the juvenile court system is different than the adult court system. In adult court, punishment and retribution are often the purposes behind sentencing. In juvenile court, rehabilitation is the focus. The intent of the juvenile court is to rehabilitate juveniles so that they are able to be a productive law-abiding members of the community when they reach the age of majority. If it is clear to the court that a minor is not a good candidate for rehabilitation, the court has the authority to transfer the juvenile case to adult criminal court. The decision of the juvenile court may also be appealed to adult court. If the minor’s criminal case remains in juvenile court, the minor has some of the same rights as an adult would have in criminal court. Some of these rights include notice of the charges against them, the ability to confront witnesses, protection from incriminating themselves and to have an attorney advocate on his or her behalf. The court will also appoint an attorney if the juvenile, or his or her family, cannot afford one. Alternatively, a difference from adult criminal court is that a minor/juvenile does not have the right to a jury trial as an adult would in criminal court. The judge hears the case and renders a verdict based on the information presented at the hearing.

Juvenile law issues are also not always criminal in nature. Some aspects of juvenile law are concerns related to a minor child (not an adult). Some concerns may be abuse, neglect, school truancy or underage drinking or smoking. Not all of these issues would be a crime if committed by an adult. However, because of the age of the individual, they are a concern of the court. In these cases and if merited by the situation, the court may remove the juvenile from his or her home. The juvenile may be placed in foster care or a government juvenile facility. If the court decides to remove the juvenile from his or her home, the juvenile’s parents will have the chance to be heard in court. Other than removal, the juvenile court also has the authority to order counseling for families or other social services that may assist the minor and his or her parents. If necessary, the court may also appoint a guardian ad litem to advocate for the minor and make sure the his or her best interests are being looked after.

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