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Juveniles and The Criminal Justice System

Updated on December 12, 2016

How It Used To Be

Children who commit crimes have not always been separated from adult offenders. History tells us that we may not have always believed in the innocents or frailness of our children. In the past children have been sentenced the same and along side adults. Children were imprisoned along side adults and sometimes even faced capital punishment. However, in the more recent past we find the emergence of the juvenile justice system which is separate from the adult criminal justice system. Believing that children needed to be handled different and believing that children are worth saving are a few reasons we see the rise of the juvenile justice system.

Criminality and Delinquency

In the past criminality and delinquency were not treated as something different. Criminality is simply being a criminal or a criminal action, and delinquency is “in the broadest usage, juvenile actions or conduct in violation of criminal law, juvenile status offenses, and other juvenile misbehavior” (Schmalleger, 2011). In essence the two are the same; however we are discussing two different types of people, one being an adult and the other a juvenile. Even though the meaning of the words may be similar, they should each be handled differently, and up until recently they were not. We wanted to spare our children all the bad that comes with being labeled a criminal, and that is why the word delinquent is used.

Should juveniles be treated the same as adults when it comes to the justice system?

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Categories of Children

There are a few different categories of children when we talk about the juvenile justice system. Delinquent children are children who commit crimes that, if they were adults would face criminal court and potential prison time. Undisciplined children are children that seem to be beyond control and show it in there disregard for any authority figure such as parents and teachers. Dependent children usually do not have parents and are in the system because of foster care, abandonment, or the death of their parents. Neglected children are mistreated by their parents and or family members, there are usually physical and mental issues that come with the neglect. Abused children are physically, mentally, and sexually abused children who suffer these violations by the hands of there parents or guardians. Status offender is a child or minor who brakes or violates specific laws that are set up specifically for them. Status offender is “a child who commits an act that is contrary to the law by virtue of the offender’s status as a child” (Schmalleger, 2011). Violations like buying alcohol or cigarettes when they are not of age are examples of behavior that would fall under status offender.

Worth Trying To Save

Like mentioned earlier, juvenile offenders were not always treated different from adult offenders in any aspect, from court procedures to sentencing to where and how you served your sentence. However, times have changed and crimes committed by juveniles are handled in a court room separate from that of adult court. These two different courts have proceedings that differ in many ways. One of the biggest differences in the juvenile proceedings is the focus of each case. As mentioned before, the juvenile justice system came about when people saw children as worth trying to save, and locking them up and throwing away the key would do no good. Society realized that our children are our future and the focus of the juvenile proceedings should be helping the juvenile, where as in criminal proceedings the focus is on criminality.

Differences in Criminal and Juvenile Proceedings

There are many other differences when it comes to criminal proceedings as opposed to juvenile proceedings, and as I mentioned before the focus of the proceedings is a little different, with criminality being the main focus of criminal proceedings and delinquency and status offenses along with helping the children being the focus of the juvenile proceedings. Some other differences include an emphasis on treatment as opposed to punishment, privacy through sealing records or keeping names out of the public eye, “the use of the techniques of social science in dispositional decision making rather than sentences determined by a perceived need for punishment” (Schmalleger, 2011), no long term sentences regardless of the crime or violation, separate prisons or juvenile facilities, and one of the biggest differences is “broad discretionary alternatives to all points in the process” (Schmalleger, 2011). There are some similarities between criminal and juvenile proceedings like the right against self-incrimination and rights to an attorney, but not much more will connect the two. Criminal proceedings are public trials, there are public records, the possibility of imprisonment in adult prisons, and the goals are punishment and reformation. However, juvenile proceedings are closed to the public, have sealed records, possible imprisonment in a juvenile facility, and the goals are protection and treatment.

When it comes to juveniles, what should be the main focus of the courts?

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Factors Of Juvenile Delinquency

One way to help with the protection and treatment of juveniles is to find the variables that correlate with juvenile crime rates. Finding what factors are more likely to cause juvenile delinquency and finding ways to fight and fix those factors will help with the crime rate. There are many risk factors that lead to juvenile delinquency like:

“birth trauma, child abuse and neglect, ineffective parental discipline,

family disruptions, conduct disorder and hyperactivity in children,

school failure, learning disabilities, negative peer influences, limited

employment opportunities, inadequate housing, and residence in high-

crime neighborhoods” ("Program of research," 1998).

Other factors such as gangs, drug use, precocious sexual activity, guns use, and other related behaviors play a role in the juvenile delinquency issues that we face today.

Parens Patriae

Early in our history, like many of our legal traditions the United States adopted a similar strategy for dealing with juveniles as England, known as parens patriae. Parens patriae is “A common law principle that allows the state to assume a parental role and to take custody of a child when he or she becomes delinquent, is abandoned, or is in need of care that the natural parents are unable or unwilling to provide” (Schmalleger, 2011). If you can not or will not do the right thing or make a mistake that lands you in the criminal or juvenile justice systems then the government will take over and make decisions for you. In a way that is still the way things appear, whether it is a child or an adult the justice system decides what to do for them, only now instead of lumping everyone together with no regard for age, we treat adults and children much differently with treatment, protection, and the best interest of the child being the main priority. Discovering how to deal with our juvenile delinquency issues has been a long process and one that will continue. Our children are our future and we have to find a way to right the wrongs and help treat children that experience or show signs of the risk factors.


Schmalleger, F. (2011). Criminal justice today: An introductory text for the twenty-first century (11th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ. Pearson Prentice Hall.

Program of research on the causes and correlates of delinquency. (1998, October). Retrieved from


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