Some Important Distinctions between Juvenile and Criminal Courts
Some of the major differences between juvenile and criminal courts are indicated below. These general principles reflect most jurisdictions in the United States.
- Juvenile courts are civil proceedings designed for juveniles, whereas criminal courts are proceedings designed to try adults charged with crimes. In criminal courts, adults are the focus of criminal court actions, although some juveniles may be tried as adults in these same courts. The civil–criminal distinction is important, because an adjudication of a juvenile court case does not result in a criminal record for the juvenile offender. In criminal courts, either a judge or a jury finds a defendant guilty or not guilty. In the case of guilty verdicts, offenders are convicted and acquire criminal records. These convictions follow offenders for the rest of their lives. However, when juveniles are found to be involved in delinquent behavior by juvenile courts, states can authorize procedures to seal or expunge juvenile court adjudications once the youth reaches adulthood or the age of majority.
- Juvenile proceedings are more informal, and criminal proceedings are more formal. Attempts are made in many juvenile courts to avoid the prescribed aspects that characterize criminal proceedings. Juvenile court judges frequently address juveniles directly and casually, and proceedings are sometimes conducted in the judge’s chambers rather than a courtroom. Despite attempts by juvenile courts to minimize formal proceedings, juvenile court procedures in recent years have become increasingly formalized. At least in some jurisdictions, it may even be difficult to distinguish criminal courts from juvenile courts in terms of their formality.
- In 30 states (including the District of Columbia), juveniles are not entitled to a trial by jury; in 10 states, juveniles have a constitutional right to a jury trial; and in 11 states, youth can be granted a jury trial under specific circumstances (Szymanksi, 2002). In all criminal proceedings, defendants are entitled to a trial by jury if the crime or crimes they are accused of committing carry a possibility of incarceration for more than six months. Judicial approval is required to hold a jury trial for juveniles in some jurisdictions. This is one more manifestation of the legacy of the parens patriae doctrine in contemporary juvenile courts. Eleven states have legislatively mandated jury trials for juveniles in juvenile courts if they are charged with certain types of offenses, are above a specified age, may be sentenced to an adult facility, and request a jury trial (Szymanksi, 2002, p.1).
- Juvenile court and criminal court are adversarial proceedings. Juveniles may or may not wish to retain or be represented by counsel (In re Gault, 1967). In a juvenile court case, prosecutors allege various infractions or law violations by the juveniles, and these charges can then be refuted by juveniles or their counsel. If juveniles are represented by counsel, defense attorneys are permitted to offer a defense to the allegations. Criminal courts are obligated to provide counsel for anyone charged with a crime if the defendant cannot afford to retain his or her own counsel and could be sentenced to a term of incarceration (Argersinger v. Hamlin, 1972). Every state has provisions for providing defense attorneys to indigent juveniles who are to be adjudicated in juvenile court. However, a recent review of state procedures suggests that not all youth receive the assistance of effective counsel (Ross, 2011).
- Criminal courts are courts of record, whereas transcripts of juvenile proceedings are made only if the state law authorizes them. Court reporters record all testimony presented in most criminal courts. State criminal trial courts are courts of record, where either a tape-recorded transcript of the proceedings is maintained or a written record is kept. Thus, if trial court verdicts are appealed by the prosecution or defense, transcripts of these proceedings can be presented by either side as evidence of errors committed by the judge or other violations of due process rights. Juvenile courts, however, are not courts of record. Therefore, in any given juvenile proceeding, whether a juvenile court judge will ask for a court reporter to transcribe the adjudicatory proceedings depends on the specific jurisdiction. One factor that inhibits juvenile courts from being courts of record is the expense of hiring court reporters for this work. Furthermore, the U.S. Supreme Court has declared that juvenile courts are not obligated to be courts of record (In re Gault, 1967). Nonetheless, in some jurisdictions, juvenile court judges may have access to a court reporter to transcribe or record all court matters.
- The standard of proof used for determining one’s guilt in criminal proceedings is beyond a reasonable doubt. The less rigorous civil standard of preponderance of the evidence is used in some juvenile court cases. However, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that if any juvenile is in jeopardy of losing his or her liberty as the result of a delinquency adjudication by a juvenile court judge, then the evidentiary standard must be the criminal court standard of beyond a reasonable doubt (In re Winship, 1970). The Court’s decision dealt with youth who could be incarcerated for any period of time, whether for one day, one month, one year, or longer. Thus, juveniles in juvenile court who confront the possible punishment of confinement in a juvenile facility are entitled to the evidentiary standard of beyond a reasonable doubt in determining their involvement in the act. Juvenile court judges apply this standard when adjudicating a juvenile’s case and the loss of liberty is a possibility.
- The range of penalties juvenile court judges may impose is limited, whereas in most criminal courts, the range of penalties may include life-without-parole sentences or even the death penalty. The jurisdiction of juvenile court judges also typically ends when the juvenile reaches adulthood. Some exceptions are that juvenile courts may retain jurisdiction over mentally ill youthful offenders indefinitely after they reach adulthood. In California, for instance, the Department of the Youth Authority supervises youthful offenders ranging in age from 11 to 25.
The purpose of this comparison is to illustrate that criminal court actions are more serious and have harsher long-term consequences for offenders compared with juvenile court proceedings. Juvenile courts continue to be guided by a strong rehabilitative orientation in most jurisdictions, where the most frequently used sanction is probation. In 2007, probation was used in approximately 56 percent of the cases in which a juvenile was adjudicated delinquent (Livsey, 2010, p. 1). Criminal courts also use probation as a sanction in about 60 percent of all criminal cases, and in 2009, about 4.2 million adult offenders were on probation (Glaze, 2010). Although juvenile courts may be utilizing more punitive sanctions, many youth continue to receive treatment-oriented punishments rather than incarceration in secure juvenile facilities. Secure confinement is viewed by most juvenile court judges as a last resort, and this disposition is reserved for only the most serious youthful offenders (LaMade, 2008).