Juvenile Courts

Juvenile courts are courts of limited jurisdiction created by states to work with children and their families in cases of the delinquent behavior of juveniles. The early argument in favor of the creation of juvenile courts was that the failure of the family was the reason for the bad behavior. Thus, public officials set up a new type of court to deal not only with the behavior, but also with the necessary rehabilitation and education of juveniles so that proper values and respect for authority could be taught. Essentially, the juvenile court system allows state governments to impose treatment on children rather than harsher criminal punishments. The right of states to intervene into the lives of juveniles (and their families) for purposes of care and custody is referred to as parens patriae, literally “parent of the country.” This entry looks at the juvenile justice system, related court rulings, and principal applications in education.

The System

Juvenile delinquency is a generic term that refers to conduct ranging from relatively minor offenses such as truancy to major criminal offenses including homicide. The jurisdiction of juvenile courts varies from state to state, but the laws generally categorize children into three groups. First, there are delinquent offenders, those who have committed acts that would be crimes if committed by adults. Second, there are status offenders, juveniles who have committed acts that would not be crimes if committed by adults; these acts include running away from home, truancy, underage drinking, and habitual disobedience. They also include persons who are too unruly to be controlled by their parents. Third, there are neglected or abused children. These are the children who seek the court’s protection. Neglected children include those children who are abandoned, homeless, or suffering from parental deprivation.

For the most serious crimes such as robbery, assault, rape, and murder, juveniles may be tried as adults. A key question asked in such a consideration is the likelihood that the juvenile has the potential to be “rehabilitated” before reaching the age of 18, or whatever age is identified in a state’s legislation as the limit in juvenile court. If the likelihood of rehabilitation is low, then juveniles will be tried as adults. In making such a determination, juvenile courts also consider the seriousness of the offender’s crime and his or her court record. Moreover, statutory age limits in juvenile law must be the same for females as they are for males.

Once juvenile courts establish jurisdiction over children, they generally have broad remedial authority. For delinquent offenders and status offenders, remedies and punishments include probation; restraining orders; mandatory curfews; detention (temporary custody) in a juvenile detention center, camp, or school; referral to the local department of youth services for a period of time commensurate with the seriousness of the infraction, but usually not longer than the period until the offender reaches the statutory maximum age such as 18 or 21 depending on the jurisdiction; fines; restitution; educational programs such as drug education; periodic drug testing; rehabilitation; revocation or suspension of driving privileges; and homebound placement. In cases involving the possibility of assignment to a correctional facility, the court considers the juvenile’s record. For abused or neglected children, the usual remedy is separation from their parents temporarily or until they reach the age of majority.

Court Rulings

The dispositional authority of juvenile courts is noticeably different from the parallel authority in adult courts. Juvenile courts seek to balance the need for punishment with the need for rehabilitation and education. Despite the differences, though, due process rights for juveniles are nearly as extensive as they are in adult court. The leading U.S. Supreme Court decision on juvenile court due process is In re Gault (1966), wherein the justices decided that juveniles have the right to notification of the charges against them, the right to an attorney, the right to confront and cross-examine witnesses, and the right to remain silent.

With respect to the standard of proof required in juvenile court proceedings, the Court has held that juveniles charged with a criminal act must be found “delinquent” with proof beyond a reasonable doubt, the same as the standard in adult courts (In re Winship, 1970). In a third case, the Court ruled that jury trials are not required in juvenile cases, because they would destroy the privacy and flexibility of juvenile hearings (McKeiver v. Pennsylvania, 1971).

Schools and the Courts

The relationship between schools and juvenile courts is developed in two central areas: education and discipline. First, with respect to discipline, the disciplinary authority granted to a school is independent of the power granted to juvenile court, or adult criminal courts, for that matter. In other words, if students commit infractions that warrant suspensions or expulsions, school officials may proceed with their discipline, regardless of whether criminal or juvenile courts adjudicate the matter. This includes any court proceeding that releases juveniles pending future hearings. As such, school official need not dispense with disciplinary proceedings while juvenile court hearings or judicial decisions are pending.

Second, with respect to education, juvenile delinquents of school age continue to have rights to education while they are detained in juvenile correctional facilities, both before and after adjudication and disposition. In cases of abused or neglected children, as well as juvenile delinquents or status offenders, the education may also include working with psychologists and other special service providers. Special consideration must also be given to those children with disabilities. Free appropriate public education, as required by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), must still be provided. Similarly, school officials must provide juveniles with reasonable accommodations, as required by Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and/or the Americans with Disabilities Act. The costs for the general education are incurred by the local agencies responsible for juvenile detention facilities regardless of whether the juveniles are enrolled in local school systems. For special education under IDEA, the responsibility remains with the school board of the child’s residence. Clearly, it is also important that school officials and juvenile courts share records, including transcripts and grades.

Patrick D. Pauken

See also Due Process; Goss v. Lopez; In re Gault; Parens Patriae

Further Readings

  • Garfinkel, L. F., & Nelson, R. (2004). Promoting better interaction between juvenile court, schools, and parents. Reclaiming Children and Youth, 13(1), 26–28. 
  • Sperry, D. J., Daniel, P. T. K., Huefner, D. S., & Gee, E. G. (1998). Education law and the public schools: A compendium. Norwood, MA: Christopher-Gordon. 

Legal Citations

  • In re Winship, 397 U.S. 358 (1970). 
  • McKeiver v. Pennsylvania, 403 U.S. 528 (1971).