Crime is in the news lately. But as they say in the news business, “If it bleeds, it leads.” – so whether crime rates are up or down, crime is always in the news. Among the crime reports are those in which the accused is a minor, so the reports note whether the accused will be tried as an adult or a minor. But what does that question really mean?
If the minor is tried as an adult, the trial will be in a regular criminal court, and neither the process nor the result will take the accused’s age into account. The age at which the accused is no longer a minor varies from state to state, but is usually 17 or 18. For the most serious crimes – especially for murder – a minor may be tried in adult criminal court. State statutes generally set the criteria by which a case with a minor defendant may be transferred to adult criminal court, although prosecutors usually have some discretion. But for most criminal charges, if the accused is under that age, the trial will be in Juvenile Court.
“Juvenile Court” does not always mean a special “juvenile court judge” in a separate “juvenile” courtroom. Juvenile Court may be a constitutionally-created court, or it may be an ad-hoc division of the local circuit, district, or county court – whichever court usually handles criminal cases. Regardless of the way the Juvenile Court is created and administered, its functions differ in some significant ways from the general criminal court system.
Of course there are similarities, mostly based on due process of law: juvenile defendants facing possible incarceration are entitled to a lawyer, they are not required to incriminate themselves, and the normal rules of evidence apply. But Juvenile Court proceedings are not always adversarial; social workers, parents, and other parties from outside the formal court system may work with the court to develop a course of action designed to steer the juvenile away from a life of crime, instead of into prison.
That doesn’t mean that defendants in Juvenile Court don’t go to jail (or to “juvy” or to “reform school”); many do. Juvenile Court doesn’t always mean “juvenile diversion” (see our January 2009 post about diversion programs). Nor does it mean a Teen Court of the juvenile’s peers, the subject last month’s post; Juvenile Court has an adult judge and prosecutor. Still, diversion or other forms of non-retributive justice are more common in Juvenile Court than in adult criminal court.
Juvenile Court may also handle cases in which the juvenile is not accused of a crime, such as dependency cases. Juvenile “delinquency” means the minor has committed a crime. Juvenile “dependency” means the minor’s parents have neglected or lost control of the juvenile, and the court must consider transferring care of the juvenile to a foster home or a person who is not the biological parent.
Some court systems may only have dedicated Juvenile Courts in certain areas, usually those with larger populations. In Louisiana, Juvenile Courts exist in Caddo, East Baton Rouge, Jefferson, and Orleans Parishes; juvenile cases in other parishes are heard in District or City Courts. In Calcasieu Parish, for example, juvenile cases are heard in two of the nine divisions of District Court. Nebraska, like Louisiana, has dedicated Juvenile Courts in only a few counties.
New York does not have separate Juvenile Courts, but it does have Family Courts that handle juvenile cases as well as other types of family cases such as divorce, custody, support, paternity, and guardianship. In California, some county Superior Courts have dedicated juvenile divisions. Los Angeles Superior Court has several dedicated juvenile courthouses; much smaller Calaveras County has a single Superior Court location and judge, with multiple divisions including Juvenile. In Indiana, juvenile cases may be heard in Circuit Court or Superior Court, depending on the county.
Georgia has a dedicated Juvenile Court in each county, although they may share jurisdiction with Superior Courts in some counties, and they do not have jurisdiction over serious criminal cases. Mississippi’s juvenile courts are called Youth Courts; they exist in every county, but their judges come from County Courts or Chancery Courts.
To see if your state has dedicated Juvenile Courts or juvenile divisions of its criminal courts, to check the courts’ jurisdiction, or to find the court’s contact information, simply check CourtReference.