III. The Juvenile Court Process
This section describes the juvenile court process. Although most states follow this same process, there is wide variation in daily practices and policies across states and even within states. Therefore, interested readers should consult practitioners at the local level to find out how they depart from the process described here. Because most referrals to the juvenile court come from the police (about 80%), many delinquency offenses are handled informally (i.e., not referred) before the juvenile court has an opportunity to process the matter. Police discretion in handling juvenile cases is an important consideration but is not discussed here. The first official step in the juvenile court process is called intake.
When the police, schools, social service agencies, or even parents refer a juvenile to the juvenile court, the matter is typically assigned to an intake officer. In smaller jurisdictions the same officer might handle intake and other functions, such as probation. In larger, urban courts an entire unit may be devoted only to intake. If the matter is serious enough, or the juvenile is deemed a threat to himself or herself or the community (e.g., an assault or suicide attempt), the juvenile likely will be sent directly to a detention facility; otherwise, intake is handled at the juvenile court office. In addition, serious offenses in some states, such as homicide or armed robbery, necessitate referral to the prosecutor’s office, thus bypassing the intake stage.
The intake officer typically has wide discretion in how to handle the referred juvenile, especially for minor and first-time offenders. Again, jurisdictions vary on how much discretion the intake officer has—some mandate specific outcomes for specific offenses or specific personal characteristics, such as having a prior delinquency referral. In most jurisdictions the intake officer informs the juveniles of their constitutional rights, including the right against self-incrimination and the right to counsel.
At intake, there are three actions the juvenile court can take: (1) dismissal, (2) diversion, or (3) filing a petition. The first action, dismissal, means that the court takes no further action against the juvenile, although the intake office will collect information about the juvenile and the alleged offense. Although there is no formal (legal) record of the referral, the juvenile court will keep a file, which can influence its future decision making (several dismissals for status offense, for instance, may indicate the need for a filing a petition). The second action, diversion, means that the court does not take formal legal action but does address the offense in some manner. Diversion can be as simple as an informal meeting with the juvenile and his or her parents or guardians, or it can be more comprehensive, such as a list of goals that the juvenile must reach in order to prevent the juvenile office from filing a formal petition. Such goals may include maintaining good grades, being home before curfew, or staying away from delinquent associates. The third action, filing a petition, is the beginning of the formal legal process in the juvenile court.
Filing a petition corresponds to filing charges in the adult criminal court. The petition is a formal legal document that lists the offenses allegedly committed by the juvenile. From its rehabilitative past, juvenile courts typically refer to the case as “in the matter of Gerald Gault” or “In re Gerald Gault” as opposed to criminal courts filing charges as “State of Illinois v. Gerald Gault.” The juvenile court office can file a petition for delinquency, a status offense, or a case of abuse and neglect. Once the petition has been filed, the juvenile must wait for a hearing date with the judge. In many cases, the juvenile court will suspend the petition if the juvenile agrees to adhere to a treatment plan through an informal probation period. This is in essence a plea agreement. This agreement gives juveniles an incentive to rehabilitate in exchange for keeping an official charge off the record, which could increase sanctions in later referrals. If the juvenile fails to meet the treatment goals, the court can reinstate the petition and seek a formal adjudication of the matter.
B. Transfer or Waiver
As mentioned previously, the juvenile court can transfer, or waive, its jurisdiction over a juvenile to the adult criminal courts. There are several different ways in which a juvenile may be waived to adult court. Many states now mandate waiver by statute for specific ages and certain serious offenses (called statutory exclusion or automatic transfer). For those offenses not covered by statutory exclusion, most juvenile court judges have the discretion regarding whether to waive the matter to adult court (a discretionary waiver). In such instances the judge must hold a hearing, called a Kent hearing, to establish two things: (1) that probable cause exists that the juvenile committed the delinquent act and (2) that the juvenile is no longer amenable to treatment by the juvenile court. Once these two elements are satisfied, the court may waive its jurisdiction. Some states require the juvenile office to demonstrate that juveniles are not amenable to treatment (called regular judicial transfer), whereas other states require that juveniles prove their amenability to treatment (called presumptive transfer). Finally, the prosecutor can request in which court, adult or juvenile, to try the offender (called direct file, prosecutor discretion, or concurrent jurisdiction).
Why transfer authority to adjudicate the juvenile in the first place? There are two main purposes. The first is that juveniles who have committed serious offenses or have many delinquency referrals may simply be beyond rehabilitation and require secure custody. The second purpose is that because the sanctions are greater in the adult court, due process is more likely in the adversarial nature of the adult system. A juvenile transferred to the adult criminal courts is therefore likely to be more severely punished but also be afforded full due process protections.
There are two other issues with regard to waiver. First, 23 states have reverse waiver, whereby the juvenile can petition to have the case transferred to the juvenile court. Second, 31 states have enacted “once an adult, always an adult” provisions. In such a state, once a juvenile has been convicted of a crime as an adult, all further cases will be automatically tried in the criminal courts.