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The Juvenile Justice System

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Once a juvenile has been accused of committing a criminal or status offense, a juvenile court’s intake officer decides how to proceed through the criminal justice system. The officer evaluates a number of factors, including:

  • whether a strong likelihood exists that the juvenile committed the act.
  • the severity or violence of the act. For example, was the act simply a first-time truancy violation?
  • whether the juvenile has had enough prior contact with the juvenile court system to warrant a serious response, such as probation, or the filing of a petition with the juvenile court.
  • whether the juvenile needs to be temporarily detained in a juvenile justice center.
  • whether the juvenile might benefit from appearing before a specialty court.
  • if alternative programs or non-judicial responses would be more appropriate. For example, if a juvenile was seen destroying someone’s property, should the court require the juvenile to both reimburse the victim for his or her damages andattend counseling sessions?

If a parent was not the reporting party, the juvenile’s custodial parent or guardian must be contacted when the juvenile is brought in for questioning. During the first 24 hours a juvenile is in custody, he or she must make an initial appearance before a probation officer, judge or court referee for further discussion or processing.

Even if a police officer or school official saw the juvenile commit the wrongful act, a chance exists that the juvenile will be released with the understanding that he or she must return for adjudication. If a court decides to hold a juvenile before an adjudication hearing, a detention hearing must be held. In some states, this hearing must be held no later than the second business day after the juvenile has been taken into custody.

Tried As an Adult or Juvenile

Once a petition is filed, a judge or court referee must decide whether the youth will be tried under the juvenile court’s authority or put through a transfer or waiver hearing to determine if the case should be handled by the adult criminal justice system.

When juvenile court authorities decide whether to transfer a juvenile to adult court, they usually consider these standards set forth by the Supreme Court in Kent v. United States:

  • Has the youth previously committed any crimes?
  • Was the alleged offense an intentional act committed in a violent manner?
  • Would the youth be more adequately rehabilitated by the juvenile court’s resources than those available in adult court?
  • How serious was the crime? Does the community’s safety require the juvenile to be tried in the adult court system?
  • Was the crime committed against property or an individual? If the crime was committed against an individual, the juvenile is more likely to be tried in adult court if the victim was physically injured.
  • What is the juvenile’s social maturity? Was he or she living independently and fully self-supporting when he or she committed the crime?
  • What is the maturity and other personality traits of people who allegedly committed the crime with the juvenile? If these people were adults, the court might believe that justice may be best served by treating all of the offenders in adult court.
  • Does the case stand a strong chance of leading to an adult criminal court prosecution?

A juvenile waived into the adult criminal justice system may:

  • be found innocent and released or be informed that the evidence isn’t strong enough go forward with a trial or other proceeding
  • accept a plea bargain offered by the district attorney. A plea bargain is an offer for the defendant to plead guilty and possibly receive a lighter sentence than in a full trial.
  • be found guilty and placed on probation or ordered into an appropriate diversionary program, such as drug rehabilitation.
  • be found guilty and sentenced to jail or prison.
  • be found guilty and receive blended sentencing. This occurs when a juvenile is either tried in adult court but remains eligible for a juvenile punishment or the juvenile is tried in a juvenile court but remains eligible for an adult sentence.

Blended Sentencing

Blended sentencing is most likely to be used when neither the juvenile nor adult court system options, when viewed separately, appear to be adequate or proper. For example, if a youth committed a series of aggravated assaults in which the victims suffered extensive injuries, the juvenile court might decide that it cannot fully meet the juvenile’s rehabilitative needs and society’s right to protection from the juvenile.

One type of blended sentencing would allow the juvenile to serve the first years of confinement in a juvenile facility. At the time of the juvenile’s state-mandated release hearing, a state could:

  • release the juvenile if it believes he or she is fully rehabilitated.
  • decide the juvenile needs to be held in a juvenile facility until his or her 21st birthday. At that time, another hearing would be held, leading to either release ortransfer to the adult correctional system for the remainder of the juvenile’s sentence.

Juvenile Offenders and the Death Penalty

In spite of arguments based on the Eighth and 14th amendments, which prohibit cruel and unusual punishment, the death penalty was being applied and upheld against some juveniles as recently as the last decade. It was not until the Supreme Court’s March 2005 decision in Roper v. Simmons that the U.S. outlawed the death penalty for people younger than 18 who commit violent acts.

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