A controversial topic arising today is should Juveniles be severely punished if they have committed a serious crime. Precisely what is meant by a juvenile court is a difficult question to determine, for the term is much easier described than defined. The inference that a juvenile court signifies a separate court or a separate judge or a separate session of the court or a separate record for children's cases is in respect to many states inaccurate. It is not a juvenile court simply because it is so called in a statute, nor is it a juvenile court simply because it has a separate court room. In some states the session of the court dealing with children is not even termed in the statues "juvenile court," though in all but two states special statutory provision has been made for the trial of some or all juvenile cases.

The juvenile court is not a court of equity or chancery, nor is it a common law court. It is a statutory court and, therefore, its legal definition is to be found in the organic acts of the different states creating it, for statutory courts and their procedure are usually arbitrarily defined and jurisdiction clearly specified therein. In general, we may say that a juvenile court is a court having special jurisdiction of a parental nature over delinquent and neglected children. (Herbert H. Lou, 1998)


There are both advantages and disadvantages accruing to youthful offenders, depending upon the course chosen. If they remain in juvenile court or fight the waiver to criminal court, they do not necessarily enjoy the full range of rights and constitutional guarantees associated with adult processing in criminal courts. The proceeding continues to be a civil one, and when these juveniles reach the age of majority, their court records are either suppressed or expunged, thus effectively isolating their previous misdeeds. If the transfer is uncontested, they enter an adult criminal court where their own conduct may be garden-variety, low-risk crime. Judges may even take into account their youthfulness as a mitigating factor, and these youths may be sentenced to probation, have their cases dismissed, or have their sentences suspended.

Some of the more important implications for juveniles system if they (1) remain in juvenile courts to have their charges resolved, or (2) enter criminal courts to have their alleged offenses adjudicated. The right to a jury trial is optional for some juvenile offenders, depending upon the jurisdiction. By and large, most jurisdictions permit the juvenile judge to exercise discretion about granting trials. In criminal courts, however, jury trials are a matter of right for anyone charged with an offense where the possible punishment involves incarceration of six months or longer. Thus, juveniles may attain advantages in criminal courts that were denied them in certain juvenile court jurisdictions.

Perhaps the most severe sanction criminal courts can impose is the death penalty. The death penalty cannot be imposed by any juvenile court judge in the United States. In order for this maximum punishment to be administered, the youth must be convicted of a capital offense, and the conviction must occur in a state where the death penalty is applicable. Finally, public policy will be examined as it relates to harsher penalties for juveniles. Are transfers of juveniles to criminal courts desirable? Is the "get tough" policy applicable to juvenile court settings as well as criminal courts? Some plausible answers to these and other questions will be provided. (Michael Willrich, 2003)


Although the jurisdiction of juvenile courts is limited, it should not be underestimated. It is insufficient to categorically conclude that having a case processed by juvenile court is decidedly better than having a criminal court receive and possibly hear the case. By the same token, one cannot say that criminal court processing of an offense is better than juvenile court processing, in any absolute sense. There are advantages and disadvantages associated with both systems, and each must be considered in order to appreciate fully the implications for affected juveniles.

Among the positive benefits of having one's cases heard in juvenile court are:

  1. juvenile court procedures are public, not illicit: thus, juveniles do not obtain criminal records
  2. juveniles are less likely to receive sentences of detention;
  3. life imprisonment and the death penalty lie beyond the jurisdiction of juvenile judges, and they cannot impose these harsh sentences;
  4. juvenile courts are usually more relaxed than criminal courts;
  5. considerably more public compassion is extended to those who are trialed in the juvenile justice system, in spite of the general public encouragement for a greater "get tough" strategy;
  6. In contrast with criminal courts, juvenile courts do not have an intricate information-exchange apparatus to decide whether certain juveniles have been termed as offenders by juvenile courts in other jurisdictions; and
  7. compared with criminal court judges, juvenile court judges have considerably more discretion in influencing a youth's life chances prior to or at the time of adjudication. (L. Mara Dodge, 2000)
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On the negative side, juvenile judges may impose short-term or long-term incarceration in secure juvenile facilities on offenders, regardless of the non-seriousness or pettiness of their offenses. In the case of In re Gault (1967), fifteen-year-old Gerald Gault was sentenced to nearly six years in the Arizona State Industrial School for allegedly making an obscene telephone call to a female neighbor. An adult committing the same offense would have been fined fifty dollars and may have served thirty days in a local jail. In Gault's case, not only was the sentence excessive, but there were constitutional irregularities. Although this unusual incarcerate sentence was subsequently overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court on numerous constitutional grounds, the fact remains that juvenile judges currently continue to impose similar sentences, provided that the constitutional guarantees assured by the Gault decision hold in any particular youth's case.

Another disadvantage of juvenile courts is that granting any juvenile a jury trial may involve a great deal of discretion by prosecutors and juvenile judges. If the judge approves, the juvenile may receive a jury trial in selected jurisdictions, if a jury trial is requested. This practice typifies juvenile courts in thirty-eight states. In the remaining states, juveniles may request and receive trials under certain circumstances. In other words, at least twelve states have made it possible for juveniles to receive jury trials upon request, although the circumstances for such jury trial requests closely parallel the jury trial requests of defendants in criminal courts. Again, we must consider the civil criminal distinction that adheres respectively to juvenile and criminal court proceedings. Jury trials in juvenile courts retain the civil connotation without causing juveniles to acquire criminal records. However, jury trials in adult criminal courts result in the offender's acquisition of a criminal record, upon conviction. (Paul E. Tracy, 2002)

A third limitation of juvenile proceedings is that the wide discretion enjoyed by most juvenile judges is often abused. This abuse is mainly in the shape of extreme leniency, and it does not arise completely at the adjudicatory phase of juvenile processing. Earlier, during intake, many cases are resolved, diverted, or dismissed without a formal petition being filed for a subsequent adjudication. One investigator has reported that in Maricopa County, Arizona, 17,773 juvenile delinquents who were born between 1962 and 1965 were tracked and determined to have committed over 76,000 delinquent acts. Nearly 90 percent of these juveniles under age sixteen who were referred to juvenile court had their cases disposed of at the intake level. Furthermore, although more serious violent crime cases were more likely to result in incarceration than other offenses, the most frequent disposition was probation. Majority of who had committed robbery, aggravated assault, and burglary recidivated within two years of their original adjudications for these offenses.

Because of this leniency and wide discretion, real or imagined, many juvenile courts have drawn criticisms over the years from the public and professionals, alike. The usual allegation is that juvenile courts neglect the accountability issue through the excessive use of probation or diversion.

Another major criticism of these courts is that juveniles do not enjoy the full range of constitutional rights applicable to their adult counterparts in criminal courts. In many jurisdictions, there are no transcripts of proceedings against juveniles where serious charges are alleged unless special arrangements are made. Thus, when juveniles in these jurisdictions appeal their adjudications to higher courts, they may not have the written record to rely upon while attempting appellate authority to override the juvenile judge's sentence. (David S. Tanenhaus, 2004)


It can be taken for granted that the juvenile court is constantly searching for new methods of disposal, because those that have been used hitherto have not necessarily yielded good results. A judge in the juvenile court should be aware of community resources and facilities for the rehabilitation of juvenile offenders. Whatever philosophy he accepts as the correct approach to juvenile delinquency, a judge of the juvenile court cannot operate in a vacuum. It is not suggested that he himself should become an expert on the manifold treatment and correctional aspects involved in rehabilitation -- in their implication, implementations, and limitations -- but he has to have firsthand knowledge of their existence and working principles. Otherwise it may happen that there are available adequate diagnostic treatments and correctional facilities of which the juvenile court fails to make use or which are not used appropriately. The responsibility of a court decision about juvenile offenders, i.e., young persons who are in a process of growing and maturing, make such knowledge indispensable. Equally indispensable is an understanding of the dynamics of human behavior and interpersonal relationships, and of the cause and effect of the social and emotional conditions under which children and young persons grow up. A special alertness and sensitivity towards the various needs of juvenile offenders has to be developed and fostered. (Matthew O. Howard, Jeffrey M. Jenson, 1998)

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