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Juvenile Law

In the past, it was felt that children under the age of seven were mentally, and therefore legally, incapable of committing a crime. Children between the ages of seven and fourteen were presumed to be incapable of committing a crime, but if it could be proven that they knew the difference between right and wrong, they could be convicted of any adult crime. If they were convicted, they received adult penalties, even death. Views about children's criminality began to change in the 1800s and reformers emphasized the need to separate children from adult criminals by building separate children's houses of refuge. These facilities stressed education in moral and religious values as well as vocational skills consistent with their philosophy that children who committed crimes needed to be guided to develop into law-abiding citizens rather than be punished. Children were placed in these facilities, often after very informal procedures, and often for "non-crimes" such as running away from home, skipping school or disobeying their parents.

Today, elaborate and complex procedures govern every aspect of the modern juvenile-justice system. Most state juvenile systems today meet the guidelines established by the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act passed by Congress in 1974. The act currently requires that states implement policies to give children some core protections. Children cannot be held in a locked facility if their only offense is a "non-crime" like running away from home or breaking curfew. These so-called status offenses must carry no criminal sanction, although they may trigger the need for a social-service investigation into the child's welfare. Secondly, the act requires states to separate children from adult criminals. Children may not be held in adult jails or prisons for more than six hours (twenty-four hours in rural areas). If they are held in an adult facility for any length of time, they must be physically separated, without even sight or sound contact, from adult offenders. Finally, if a state finds that it has a disproportionate share of minority children confined in secure facilities, it must address the issue. (Minority children make up one-third of the population as a whole, but account for two-thirds of the children in secure facilities. Studies have shown that they are more likely to be put in jail than are non-minority children who commit the same offenses.)

Children who are too young or too old will not be prosecuted for juvenile crimes, usually called delinquent acts. Some states use the old common-law lower age limit of seven years; others use ten years. Children under these ages may be referred to the child welfare department but they will not be the subject of a delinquency proceeding. Most states use eighteen years as the upper limit of juvenile court authority, but some have lowered the upper limit to seventeen or sixteen years. In addition, some classes of crimes, such as traffic offenses, are exempted from juvenile court jurisdiction.

Moving a child from juvenile court to adult court for criminal proceedings is a process referred to as waiver. Waiver is present in all state juvenile systems, but the requirements for its use differ. Some states allow waiver of children of any age, but most require the child to be older than thirteen years at the time of the commission of the offense to qualify for waiver. Most states also allow waiver only for more serious offenses.

In most states a delinquency proceeding may be initiated for any violation of the criminal code. Instead of being charged with a crime, however, the child is accused of committing a delinquent act. The child has a constitutional right to an attorney to represent him or her in the delinquency proceeding. However, there is no constitutional right to trial by jury in juvenile proceedings, so in most states the hearing on the delinquency petition is held before a juvenile court judge. Since the underlying philosophy of juvenile court is to help the child, a child convicted of a delinquent act may receive treatment rather than confinement in a secure facility. Typically, children who are released into the custody of their parents with a treatment plan are monitored by a juvenile court probation officer for compliance with the terms of the sentence. Children placed in secure facilities may also receive treatment. Many states have an upper age limit for children in the system, so a child found to have committed a serious delinquent act may only receive a year or two of confinement before he or she becomes too old for the system.

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