The other day, my 14-year-old asked what the CJ system would do to a kid who “sort of accidentally” hurt another kid. (I’m hoping this question was entirely hypothetical.) My answer? “It depends.” Yeah, that didn’t satisfy her either.

The thing is, however, it depends. The first question is where the miscreant lives, because juvenile justice laws vary a great deal from state to state. In some states, the minimum age at which someone can be tried as an adult is 16. In some it’s 14. In some it’s even younger. The second question is how old our hypothetical delinquent is. And third, we’d need to know the details of the offense. What was the delinquent doing? Did she intend the harm or was it truly an accident? Did she have a weapon? Was she acting in self-defense? All of these factors will determine the type of offense she might be charged with and whether she has a reasonable defense. In some states, the decision of whether to try someone as an adult might lie with the prosecutor rather than the judge, depending on the offense.

Once I spent fifteen minutes explaining all of that to my daughter, she was shocked to learn that in California, where we live, she could be tried as an adult for some crimes. Then she had another question for me: if that hypothetical kid harmed another, could the delinquent’s parents get in trouble? My answer was the same: it depends. As circumstances warrant, they could be charged with something like child neglect or contributing to the delinquency of a minor. However, if the parents had supervised the child appropriately, hadn’t provided the kid with a gun, and generally did all the parental stuff they were supposed to do, it’s unlikely they would face criminal liability.

The upshot for you? If you want to include a juvenile offender, be careful how you craft the details, and be aware of your local laws.


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.