When a Minor Commits a Crime

When minors are eligible for juvenile court, and what to expect in juvenile court.

"Juvenile justice" is an umbrella term for the special procedures set up by every state to deal with young people whose cases belong in juvenile court. Juvenile courts handle most of the cases in which young people (usually called "juveniles" or "minors") are accused of committing crimes.

Eligibility for Juvenile Court

There is no set age by which a child is accountable in the juvenile court system. In general, a child under seven years of age is considered too young, while a child 14 or older is considered accountable for their crimes, either in juvenile or adult court. Children between the ages of seven and 14 occupy a middle ground, and prosecutors must demonstrate that the accused child is capable of forming the guilty mind required to be accountable in the juvenile court system.

Of course, the treatment of juveniles differs from state to state, judge to judge, cop to cop. And if differences of opinion generally exist about "getting tough on crime," the conflicting opinions on how to deal with minors accused of crimes are greater still.

Not every young person who commits an offense ends up in juvenile court. A police officer who suspects that a minor has committed a crime may:

  • detain and warn the minor against further violations, and then let the minor go free
  • detain and warn the minor against further violations, but hold the minor until a parent or guardian comes for the minor, or
  • place the minor in custody and refer the case to a juvenile court.

Whether Case Goes to Juvenile Court

If the police refer a case to the juvenile court, a prosecutor or a juvenile court "intake" officer (often a probation officer) must then decide whether to:

  • dismiss the matter
  • handle the matter informally, or
  • "petition" the matter by filing formal charges.

In some localities, the probation officer makes only a preliminary assessment of whether to file formal charges, and leaves the final decision to a prosecutor. (For more information, see Avoiding Formal Charges, below.)

Informal Charges

A decision to proceed informally often means that the minor must appear before a probation officer or a judge. The minor may receive a stern lecture, and may also be required to attend counseling sessions or after-school classes, repay the victim for damaged property or pay a fine, perform community service work, or go on probation. If the intake officer suspects that a minor taken into custody has been abused or neglected, the officer may also initiate proceedings to remove the minor from the custody of his or her parents or guardians.

Formal Charges

If the intake officer decides to proceed formally, the officer files a petition and the case is placed on the juvenile court's calendar. At that point juvenile cases typically flow through the juvenile justice system in this manner:

  • The minor is arraigned (formally charged) before a juvenile court judge or referee. At this point, the juvenile court either takes jurisdiction of the case or, if the crime or the juvenile's personal characteristics indicate that the case should be handled in regular court, the judge sets the case for a "fitness hearing."
  • At the hearing, the judge will determine whether the minor should be tried as a juvenile or as an adult in regular court. As younger and younger minors commit ever more violent crimes, these fitness hearings are becoming more common.
  • If the case remains in juvenile court, the minor either enters into a plea agreement or faces trial (often called an "adjudication").
  • If, after trial, the juvenile court judge "sustains the petition" (concludes that the charges are true), the judge decides on an appropriate sentence (usually referred to as a disposition).
  • Post-disposition hearings may occur. For example, a judge's disposition order may require a minor to appear in court periodically so that the judge can monitor the minor's behavior.
Avoiding Formal Charges

Here's a list of factors, both official and "off the record," that intake officers consider when deciding whether to formally charge a juvenile with a crime. First, the official list:

  • The severity of the offense. A serious crime is more likely to result in the filing of a petition than a less serious crime.
  • The minor's age. Petitions are more likely to be filed in cases involving older children.
  • The minor's past record. Formal charges are more likely when a minor has been previously involved with juvenile court.
  • The strength of the evidence that the minor committed a crime. Obviously, stronger evidence leads to a greater likelihood of formal charges.
  • The minor's gender. Formal charges are more likely to be filed against boys than against girls.
  • The minor's social history. Petitions are more likely to be filed when children have a history of problems at home or at school.
  • The parent's or guardian's apparent ability to control the minor. The greater the lack of parental control, the more likely the intake officer is to file a petition.

In addition to these official reasons, the filing decisions of many intake officers cannot help but be swayed by a number of subjective factors. These may include:

  • The minor's attitude. Formal proceedings are less likely when a child shows remorse for committing a crime.
  • The minor's manner of dress. If the young person dresses well, is neatly groomed and is polite, intake personnel are more likely to handle the case informally.
  • Whether the minor has family or community support. The more support the young person has, the more likely the intake officer is to deal with the case informally.
  • Whether the minor has an attorney. Disposing of a case informally may be less likely when a child has a lawyer.
  • Ethnicity and socio-economic status. Statistics suggest (though few, if any, intake officers would admit) that the ethnicity and socio-economic status of minors often affects how aggressively their cases are handled.