Juvenile law governs the treatment of under-age who committed crimes. Under the law, a juvenile delinquent is someone under 18 years old who committed a crime or who violated rules. Juvenile delinquent is used interchangeably with youth offenders or delinquent minors. Juvenile minors, as they are often also called, have their own courts and are not treated the same way as adult criminal offenders due to the fact that minors need more guidance and care from the state.
Application of juvenile law vary on a state to state basis. The main precept is that the state is obligated to provide care and protection for the children within the state under the doctrine of parens patriae. Most, but not all, states have a juvenile code that brings together all rules and regulations governing the treatment, custody, and supervision of minor offenders. The federal government enacted the Juvenile Delinquency Prevention and Control Act of 1968 to address the increasing incidences of minors committing crimes and the negative effects on minors when placed in mainstream correctional facilities. The federal legislation provides guidelines that should be complied with by the states in their application of their own sets of juvenile laws.
To be considered a juvenile delinquent also varies from state to state. State juvenile codes differ in their definitions of what are considered juvenile delinquent acts. In some states, mere disobedience from parents is considered a juvenile delinquent act. In other states, school truancy and curfew violations are considered juvenile delinquent acts. In all cases, drinking alcohol is a juvenile delinquent act.
Due to the age and, often times, the level of maturity of, the minor offender, cases dealing with juvenile delinquents are delicate and sensitive. Hearings on juvenile delinquency cases are done in a confidential manner in order to protect the child. Courts also do not conduct the hearings like a typical criminal trial where the accused is subjected to thorough examination and cross examination. In juvenile delinquency cases, child specialists such as psychiatrists and counselors are employed to help adjudicate the cases with the goal of rehabilitation, rather than punishment. Juvenile delinquents are afforded the same, if not, more rights than adults who are accused of committing crimes. For most juvenile delinquent acts, the penalty would be paying a fine, community service or counseling.
The minor can also be sent to home confinement, to a foster group or to a special juvenile detention centers. Minors are provided separate facilities and are aided with social workers and probation officers whose goal is to help the juvenile avoid a life of crime. In rare juvenile delinquency cases, such as when the minor commits murder, the accused is sent to adult prisons, although they are still given separate facilities by virtue of their age. States have not agreed as to a uniform age when minors should be held responsible for their criminal behavior.
Being charged with delinquent acts is not easy especially for minors who, most often, do not know an inch of the law. They are vulnerable to abuses of the legal system if not represented by expert juvenile law attorneys.