Juvenile: Definition, Law & Crime Statistics

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  • 0:03 History
  • 1:28 The Juvenile Court System
  • 5:29 Trends in Juvenile Crime
  • 6:47 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Rachael Smith

Rachael has a background in secondary education and has practiced law for eight years.

This lesson will describe who is considered a juvenile, the history of juvenile court, landmark cases that have shaped the juvenile justice system, and the changing trends in juvenile law over the past thirty years.


During the English common law system of the eighteenth century, anyone under the age of 7 was considered an infant, incapable of forming criminal intent. Children over the age of 14 were treated as adults. Children between the ages of 7 to 14, who committed a crime, could have been charged as adults - if they understood the difference between right and wrong. During this time, children were also placed into jails alongside adults, often with no separation or difference in treatment. As a result, children were sometimes tried and executed for their crimes, even if they had been convicted of a relatively minor crime. This pattern of thinking carried over to the American colonies and remained in place until after the Civil War.

In the 19th century, juvenile reforms in the United States began to shift thinking from a system of punishment to a system of rehabilitation, recognizing that it is more beneficial for society to focus on the rehabilitation and treatment of children separate from adults. Acting under parens patriae, or the 'parent of the country' doctrine, courts could stand in place of the child's guardian to ensure their best interests were being met. Cases began to be treated as civil matters rather than criminal, although children could still be removed from the home and placed in reform institutions.

The Juvenile Court System

Illinois created the first juvenile court system in 1899. Today, juvenile courts exist in every state. In most states, a juvenile is anyone under the age of 18 years old. Some states extend this age of majority to 19 or even 21 years old. Delinquent juveniles are those charged with crimes, such as shoplifting, criminal mischief, or possession of marijuana. Status cases are those where the behaviors are unacceptable due to the age of the juvenile. Minors in possession of alcohol and running away from home are examples of a status case because those actions would be acceptable if done by someone over the age of majority. Truancy cases typically involve the youth being unexcused from home or school. Juvenile courts may also hear child welfare, divorce, child custody, child support, or other matters directly related to children and the family.

Not all cases involving juveniles are heard in juvenile court. In some cases, jurisdiction may be waived from the juvenile court to adult court through a process called a transfer, or waiver hearing. In Kent v. US (1966), a juvenile was arrested for crimes based on his fingerprints, which had been taken two years prior. The judge transferred his case to adult court without a hearing. The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) held that Kent was entitled to have a hearing on the matter and the right to have the court explain its reasoning for the transfer.

Each legal matter begins with the petition, or court document that sets forth the allegations against the juvenile. In child welfare cases, these allegations are against the parent or guardian accused of neglect or abuse. Cases are then scheduled for an arraignment, or a first appearance hearing, where the juvenile is advised of his/her rights and the possible penalties of court involvement. All juveniles, like adults, have a right to counsel to represent their interests. Some juveniles are also appointed a guardian ad litem, which is an attorney who represents the best interests of the juvenile. Another court case entitled In re Gault (1967) established that juveniles have a right to an attorney. Further, they have the right to understand the nature and consequences of the charges against them, the right to confront and cross-examine witnesses, and the right against self-incrimination. These due process rights ensure that those charged with a crime are afforded a fair and impartial trial in the court system.

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