juvenile court

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A juvenile court is a court that handles cases involving crimes committed by children, or cases involving the health or welfare of children. Every state has a juvenile system in place. Juvenile courts and their subject matter jurisdiction are created by state statute, and in most jurisdictions juvenile proceedings occur in separate courtrooms from traditional proceedings and are presided over by judges who only hear juvenile cases. The public is usually barred from these proceedings to protect the privacy of involved children. Judges typically decide juvenile cases, as only a few states provide for juvenile jury trials on rare occasions. In re Gault, 387 U.S. 1 (1967) is the Supreme Court case that ruled juvenile criminal defendants are entitled to Due Process protection under the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

The jury trial is rarely utilized in juvenile matters because it would be a costly drain on the criminal justice system to do so, and because a jury trial places the child and the government in adversarial positions. Adversarial positioning better suits adult criminal defendants, for whom society is more interested in retributivism and incapacitation. However, it is more commonly believed that juvenile defendants should be rehabilitated, and that youth are less culpable for their offenses and more likely to be rehabilitated than their adult counterparts. To better serve this purpose, juvenile courts are less formalized in court procedure and rules, and generally produce less harsh and more community-based punishments that are less stigmatizing than those placed on adult offenders. The judge generally speaks directly to the child to better understand the child’s mindset and attitude, and has much more discretion in choosing penalties than a traditional judge.

A juvenile court judge can recommend at judicial discretion that a juvenile offender be tried as an adult if the offense is particularly violent or serious. Some states may specify certain offenses by statute that will automatically result in the juveniles who commit those crimes being tried as adults. These children are considered to not be receptive to the rehabilitative philosophy of the juvenile court system and that incapacitation is more effective.

[Last updated in July of 2023 by the Wex Definitions Team]