In the United States, both juveniles and adults may be charged with crimes. Both are entitled to be made aware of the charges and to have legal representation. The lawyers in either a juvenile or adult criminal court have the right to question and cross examine witnesses. Moreover, both juvenile and adult defendants are protected from self-incrimination. Beyond these similarities, these two systems of justice are quite different.
In most states, an individual charged with a crime who is between the ages of 10 and 18 is considered a juvenile. However, some states set an upper limit of 16 or 17 years of age for juvenile court. Should the defendant be accused of a particularly heinous crime, there is the possibility that they could be tried in an adult court. This is a relatively rare occurrence, and often controversial given the young age of the accused.
Differences in Court Proceedings
Where an adult is accused of a crime, a juvenile is generally accused of a delinquent act. This implies that the infraction the minor is believed to have committed is of a less serious nature. Because they are not adults, juveniles are not afforded the right to a public trial by jury. Their cases are decided by a judge alone. However, the proceedings in adult and juvenile criminal courts are quite similar in that evidence is presented, testimony is given and witnesses are questioned. In many states, the rules of evidence are less formal in juvenile court, making it easier for both plaintiff and defendant to present their case.
Differences in Aim
For adults found guilty of a crime, the courts focus on punishment. Essentially, they attempt to impose a penalty that will make it less likely for the individual to commit a similar crime again in the future. Incarceration is the most frequently used means of punishment. However, the juvenile court system focuses on trying to rehabilitate the minor. Parole and probation are often used, as are diversionary programs. Each state creates its own diversionary programs. Components of these may include counseling, the requirement for performing community service and making restitution to individuals harmed by the minor’s delinquent act. Sometimes these programs help offenders to prepare for the future with educational programs. The juvenile justice system is designed to set underage offenders on a different path that will hopefully keep them out of adult jails and prisons.