I’m going to start this post with a piece of solid advice: If you’re writing a story in which a person committing a crime is under 18 years old, research your state laws. The criminal justice system in general varies across jurisdictions, but that variance is especially notable when it comes to juvenile justice.
Here are some things you should consider:
- The minimum age at which a person can be tried as an adult varies by offense and by state
- The maximum age at which a person can be tried as a juvenile varies by offense and by state
- The process of waiver (moving a case from juvenile to adult court) varies by offense and by state
- The maximum age at which a juvenile offender can be incarcerated in a juvenile facility varies by state
Juvenile proceedings use different terminology than adult criminal ones, in part to avoid stigma. For example, it’s a hearing instead of a trial. The juvenile is adjudicated delinquent instead of being found guilty. He’s given a disposition instead of a sentence.
Juveniles are entitled to many of the same procedural protections as adults, including the rights to an attorney, to remain silent, and to appeal. What juveniles don’t get is a jury. The judge makes the decisions.
In theory, the purpose of the juvenile system is to rehabilitate rather than punish. It’s questionable how well the system lives up to this, but there are generally more dispositions available for juveniles than for adults.
Don’t assume that juvenile proceedings won’t come back to haunt an adult. In California, for example, certain juvenile adjudications can count as “strikes” that can later qualify the adult for a lengthy prison term if he gains a third strike. Juvenile records aren’t necessarily sealed—and even when they are, they may still be accessible to law enforcement and other agencies.
Finally, juvenile offenders may sometimes end up incarcerated in adult facilities. Most advocacy and policy organizations strongly recommend that this not happen, but it does.