Juvenile law is the unique body of law that relates to minors. To put it another way, juvenile law is the law that applies specifically to juveniles. Although the juvenile criminal court is likely the most known example of juvenile law, there are many cases where the law treats a minor differently than an adult. While many constitutional rights are the same for both minors and adults like the right to the representation of an attorney in a criminal matter and the right to bring a lawsuit, there are some key differences.
Why does juvenile law exist?
Juvenile law exists because lawmakers and the courts believe that it’s appropriate to treat minors differently than adults under the law. Policy makers believe that juveniles have more potential for rehabilitation than their adult counterparts. They believe that young offenders are more likely to make mistakes that warrant smaller punishments and behavioral treatment rather than the full penalties of adult law.
Juvenile criminal proceedings
Perhaps the most obvious example of juvenile law is the juvenile criminal justice system. When a person accused of a crime is under a certain age, state prosecutors bring the case in a special court established to meet the needs of the public and the juvenile. Instead of facing the full penalties of the offense in adult court, the juvenile faces alternative penalties.
If they’re convicted of the offense, they may face time in a juvenile facility instead of jail. A juvenile is often more likely to receive counseling, community service and other rehabilitative programs rather than punishment. Juvenile proceedings are often confidential. Juvenile criminal records are not typically made public but they may still impact a minor’s opportunities for employment, military service and volunteering.
A juvenile proceeding is a lot like an adult criminal proceeding but it is more informal. The juvenile has a right to know the charges against them, and there are often pretrial conferences. If the offense is relatively minor like shoplifting or minor in possession of alcohol and the offender does not have a prior criminal history, the state’s attorney may agree to dismiss the charges after a period of good behavior.
Does an accused minor have the right to an attorney?
A juvenile has a right to the assistance of counsel in a juvenile case. When juvenile courts first came about in the early twentieth century, a juvenile criminal proceeding was often nothing more than a conversation between the judge and the minor. However, in the 1967 Supreme Court case In re Gault, the Court affirmed a minor’s right to the assistance of counsel in the same way an adult has the right to the help of an attorney when they’re facing jail time for a crime.
Is there a right to a jury trial in a juvenile criminal proceeding?
Although a minor has the right to the help of an attorney, they don’t have the right to a jury trial. Some states choose to allow jury trials, but it’s not mandatory under the U.S. Constitution. Whether a judge or jury tries the case, the burden of proof is beyond a reasonable doubt that the juvenile is guilty of the offense charged.
Are the ages of criminal responsibility the same in every state?
Each state determines their own age of criminal responsibility. In some states, the age is 18, but it may be higher or lower. States are free to change the age of responsibility as they see fit. After a juvenile reaches the age of majority, they are charged in adult court any time they’re accused of an offense.
Even if the age of majority is less than 21, most states allow penalties for a juvenile proceeding to continue until the age of 21. For example, if a minor receives a conviction in juvenile court at the age of 17, the court may hold the minor in a juvenile facility or order treatment until the child is 21. The rules vary by state.
Can a minor be tried as an adult?
Even when a minor is under the age of majority for the purposes of juvenile law, the state may still choose to charge the minor as an adult. Charging a minor as an adult is rare, and it’s usually received for serious charges like homicide and criminal sexual conduct. It’s up to the prosecutor in charge of the case to decide whether to charge a minor as an adult.
Modern juvenile court
Modern juvenile courts have many options for addressing young offenders. A court has wide latitude in order to do what they believe is best for the minor, any victims in the case and the public at large. Specialty courts such as alcohol recovery courts and drug treatment courts are growing in the juvenile justice system as well as in adult courts. Minors may take advantage of these programs in order to address substance abuse issues at an early age and reduce the severity of a criminal charge or avoid a conviction completely.
Minors in tort cases
You can sue a minor if you’re the victim of a tort committed by the minor. If a minor is almost at the age of adulthood, you’re more likely to convince a jury to hold them accountable than if the child is very young. It’s difficult to hold parents financially responsible for a minor’s actions, however, unless you can show that the parents acted negligently, recklessly or intentionally in their supervision of the child. In most cases, a minor doesn’t have the resources to pay a judgment, but in theory, you can bring a tort claim against a minor.
A minor can also be the plaintiff in a lawsuit. They need a parent or a representative to file the case on their behalf. The court may appoint a representative, but typically someone close to the child like a parent serves in this role. A minor plaintiff has the same rights of recovery as any other plaintiff under the law.
Juveniles as witnesses in court
Juveniles are competent to be witnesses in court. The same rules apply to minors that apply to all persons when it comes to their competency to testify in a legal proceeding. A party or the court may question a child about their ability to tell the truth. The trier of fact may take the juvenile’s age into account when they determine how much weight to give the testimony.
Abuse and neglect proceedings
Another important area of juvenile law is abuse and neglect proceedings. A state government may step in if they believe that a child has been harmed or is in imminent danger of harm in the care of a parent or guardian. The burden of proof on the government to intervene is very high. If the court believes that abuse or neglect has occurred, they may offer rehabilitative and reunification programs for the family. In extreme cases, the court may terminate parental rights to the child.
Who practices juvenile law?
Most lawyers who practice juvenile law practice it as an extension of a broader criminal law practice. The same laws apply to minors and adults even though the courts enforce the laws in different ways for each group. Most juvenile lawyers also practice criminal law as a substantial part of their legal practice. They may focus entirely on criminal law, or they may take criminal law cases as part of a general practice that includes family law, business law, estate planning and other legal needs.
Why Become a juvenile lawyer?
Juvenile law is a natural and practical extension of almost any criminal law practice. Advocating for minors involves helping them make amends and change their behavior in the future. Because minors have the same constitutional rights that all Americans enjoy, practicing juvenile law is also critical to help this segment of the population defend their rights to the fullest extent of the law.
Because criminal courts exist throughout the United States, practicing juvenile law allows you to live almost anywhere. You may have the opportunity to work in private practice or for a government agency. There are a wide variety of opportunities and options for attorneys choosing juvenile law as a line of work. For lawyers who enjoy frequent court appearances and interactions with clients, juvenile law may be a good fit.
Advocating for the rights of minors under the law
Juveniles have the same rights as all Americans, but the courts have different procedures and goals for juveniles. Juvenile proceedings are important for public safety. They can also have lasting consequences for the juveniles involved and for the public. Practicing juvenile law allows an attorney to have a well-rounded practice as a prosecutor or defense attorney and allows them to choose whether to work in private practice or public work. The juvenile justice system relies on the work of attorneys to defend the rights of juvniles and the interests of the public.