Young People and the Courts
Did you know that in the early days of our nation a child could be tried and sentenced in the same courts as adults? If a ten-year-old was tried and found guilty of stealing they would be sentenced to the same punishment given to an adult. Should young people be treated differently than adults? There were people that thought so during the early 19th century. They believed that you can correct the behavior of a young criminal and that should be the goal instead of simply punishment. Then in 1899, in the city of Chicago, the Cook County, Illinois court system established the first juvenile court. They believed that it was the state’s duty to protect and guard the interests of the child.
Causes of Juvenile Delinquency
The State of Missouri has many various ages of consent, or when the state considers a person an adult and old enough to encounter specific things. For instance, you must be 21 to purchase and consume alcoholic beverages, serve on a jury, or legally gamble. You must be 18 to get married without your parents’ permission, register to vote, make a will, sign a lease (such as for an apartment), or consent to your own medical treatment. You must attend school until you are age 16. At 16 you can also apply for a drivers’ license.
The State of Missouri allows you to be tried as an adult for any crime that you commit and are charged at the age of 17. You MAY be charged as an adult at ANY age if you are alleged to have committed a serious offense such as murder, sale of drugs, robbery, rape or assault, or if you are a repeat offender. A 12-year-old can be tried as an adult for serious crimes, such as stealing a car, drug possession, or carrying a weapon. Because of all of these different considerations, it is safe to assume that any high school student being tried for a serious crime could be tried as an adult in Missouri.
Many states consider the age of 18 as the certain age at which people become adults in the eyes of the criminal justice system. Anyone younger than that will be considered a juvenile, or someone who is not yet legally an adult. Those people who commit crimes under this age will be treated as juvenile delinquents and be handled somewhat differently from adults. But as we have already mentioned, some crimes can cause a juvenile to be treated as an adult.
Hundreds, if not thousands of crimes are committed each year by children and teenagers. Some of these crimes are misdemeanors such as shoplifting. Others are more serious crimes such as armed robbery, rape, or murder. Studies have shown that children who are abused or neglected, or who suffer emotional or mental problems, may be more likely to get into trouble with the law. They have also shown that children who grow up in poverty, in overcrowded and rundown neighborhoods where drug and alcohol are common, are more likely to become delinquents.
These factors may contribute to juvenile delinquency, but they do not explain why some young people commit crimes. Many children who suffer abuse and live in poverty never have any trouble with the law, and some children from more secure homes commit very extreme crimes. A child from any background could become a juvenile delinquent. Consider those involved in the various school shootings over the past twenty years.
Stages in the Juvenile Justice System
With the advent of the juvenile court system, young people charged with committing crimes are tried separately from adult criminals. The purpose of juvenile courts is to try to rehabilitate, or correct a person’s behavior, rather than punish the person. Nearly three-fourths of juvenile court cases begin when police arrest young people for crimes. The rest are from petitions to the courts that school administrators, store managers, or others in contact with children have filed. Parents unable to control the behavior of their children can petition, or ask, the court for help. This means that children can be put into the juvenile justice system WITHOUT having been accused of a crime. An example of this would be repeatedly running away from home.
The juvenile court system was set up in the late 1800s as a result of judicial system reforms. Before then, juvenile offenders, or lawbreakers, over the age of 14 were treated like adults. They were served the same sentences and sent to the same prisons as adults. Now the guiding principle of juvenile courts is to do whatever is in the best interest of the young people.
Juvenile courts handle for the most part two basic types of cases: neglect and delinquency. Cases of neglect involve juveniles who are neglected or abused by their caregivers. A juvenile court has the power to put these youths with other families in foster homes, where they will be protected and cared for. Delinquency cases involve juveniles who commit crimes. Juvenile courts also handle cases in which juveniles perform acts considered illegal for juveniles but not for adults, such as running away from home, skipping school, or violating curfew laws. These are situations that are not concerns of adults committing because they do not pertain to adults.
Diversion or Detention
When a juvenile is arrested, the police notify his or her parents or caregivers. Depending on the crime, the young person may be sent home or kept in a juvenile detention center until it is time to appear in court.
Most police departments handle juvenile cases with designated officers. These officers may have the authority, especially in nonviolent cases, to divert juveniles away from court and into special programs. Because the emphasis is on rehabilitation (improving the young person’s behavior) rather than punishment, the system has counseling, job training, and drug treatment programs that juveniles can be diverted into.
Even if juveniles are eventually diverted from the system, they may be held in custody at first, while authorities decide which direction to go with the case. In such a case, a judge will hold a detention hearing to determine whether the juvenile might be dangerous to himself or others. Young people judged to be dangerous are candidates for further confinement.
For those who are continued to be held the next step is a preliminary hearing. As in the adult system, the purpose of this procedure is to determine whether probable cause is present to believe that the young person has committed the crime as charged.
The court procedure for juveniles is similar to adult trials, but not identical. At the court appearance, the juvenile and his or her caregivers meet with their lawyer, the judge, the arresting officer, and the probation officer investigating the case. This meeting or hearing is similar to a trial, but less formal. Only the parties involved can be in attendance. As in a trial, both sides are allowed to call and cross-examine witnesses. There is no jury. Juveniles do not have the right to a jury trial. In most cases the judge decides whether the juvenile is delinquent or nondelinquent.
The juvenile court system tries to protect juveniles by keeping the identity of offenders secret and not allowing the public to view their criminal records. In some cases, those criminal records can be erased when the offender becomes an adult. Juveniles are also not fingerprinted or photographed when they are arrested.
Some states have experimented with peer juries made up of other juveniles. Jury members receive special training on the philosophy of the juvenile justice system. Typically, peer juries are used only for the sentencing stage, and the defendant must agree to the use of a peer jury.
If a juvenile has been found delinquent, or guilty, the court holds another hearing to decide the disposition of the case. This is the equivalent of sentencing.
Juvenile court judges can sentence juvenile offenders in many ways. They may simply send them home with a stern lecture, or they may place offenders with a previous history of delinquency in a special training school, reformatory, treatment center, or teen shelter. Often the juvenile formally agrees to attend school or obey his or her caregivers during a probationary period. If the young person successfully completes probation, the charges will be dropped and the matter removed from their record. Juveniles who are neglected or have poor home lives may become wards of the court. The court becomes their guardian and can supervise them until adulthood. Judges can put juveniles with serious mental or emotional problems in a hospital or institution. Because of the emphasis on rehabilitation, however, a judge can divert a juvenile from the system even after he or she has been found delinquent.
Supreme Court Rules
In 1967 the Supreme Court established several rules for juvenile criminal cases. For instance, the parents or guardians of the juveniles must be notified of the arrest as soon as possible. Juveniles and their caregivers must be notified in writing of all charges against them. The juvenile has the right to an attorney and the right to remain silent. Juveniles also have the right to confront witnesses against them.
These rights came out of the In re Gault Court case. In the 1967 case, 15-year-old Gerald Gault of Arizona was charged with making indecent telephone calls to a neighbor. His parents were not informed of his arrest. During the hearing that followed, Gault did not have an attorney present and the neighbor was not questioned. The judge sentenced Gault to a reformatory school until the age of 21, or six years. If Gault had been an adult, the sentence would only have been a $50 fine and a few months in jail.
The Supreme Court overturned the judge’s decision and established that juveniles do have the right to counsel (lawyer), the right to confront witnesses, and the right not to be forced to incriminate themselves. Justice Abe Fortas wrote the majority opinion statement for the Court, “Whatever may be their precise impact, neither the Fourteenth Amendment nor the Bill of Rights is for adults alone.”