Juveniles Law: What Happens When a Minor Violates the Law?

A "juvenile" is a minor, which in most states is a person under the age of 18. When a juvenile violates a criminal statute, the consequences are usually very different from those if an adult broke the same law. Sometimes the Juvenile Court process is more lenient than the adult court, but sometimes it can be more onerous. A juvenile offender can find himself in Juvenile Court if he violates a criminal statute; that is, a state or federal law that allows for violators to be punished by a sentence to jail or prison.

Generally, there are three varieties of offenses: felonies, misdemeanors and infractions, though the terms for these three categories may differ from state to state. A felony is a crime that could result in an adult being sentenced to state prison, usually a sentence of over a year. Felonies include burglary, robbery, weapons assaults, violent sex crimes, murder, grand theft, and sale of any illegal drugs, to name a few.

Misdemeanors are less serious crimes, but can still result in a sentence of up to a year in the County Jail, if committed by an adult. Petty theft, possession of small amounts of marijuana, disorderly conduct, indecent exposure, less serious assaults, and drunk driving are generally misdemeanor offenses.

The jail and prison sentences for these crimes do not usually apply to a minor, because he or she cannot be found guilty of a "crime." However, a juvenile appearing in the Juvenile Justice system will be presented with "charges" of violating those criminal statutes, as grounds for invoking the Juvenile Court's authority over the minor. Once invoked, the Court has broad control over the juvenile’s life.

Infractions are even less serious offenses than misdemeanors, and include any offense that cannot result in any jail time, but only a fine or administrative consequence. Examples are speeding, parking violations, or failing to comply with administrative regulations pertaining to your home, car or business.

When a juvenile commits a crime, he is charged by a probation officer or a prosecutor in a "civil" (ie, not criminal) petition, alleging that he is subject to the Court's Jurisdiction for having violated the statute. If the charges are proved in Juvenile Court, a judicial finding is made that the minor is subject to the Court's broad control and jurisdiction. The Court’s powers include returning the minor home, imposing formal or informal probation; placement with foster care; enrollment in a special school for juvenile offenders, or even commitment to the State’s Juvenile detention center, sometimes called “Juvenile Hall” or the “Juvenile Jail.” This can continue until the minor comes of age, or even until the age of 21 or 25, depending on each state’s laws. Some states have laws allowing that minors 14 or older committing very serious offenses may even be transferred to adult court and prosecuted and punished like an adult. It is therefore a mistake to take the Juvenile Court process lightly.