Juveniles may be detained in secure juvenile facilities for a short assessment period or until their adjudication hearing, which can be several weeks or even a few months. Most jurisdictions require a mandatory detention hearing, typically 24 to 72 hours, to justify the juvenile’s custody. Although most juveniles sent to detention facilities are quickly released to their parents or guardians, there are three reasons to prolong detention: (1) to prevent harm to the community, (2) to prevent harm to oneself, or (3) to ensure attendance at the hearing. Juveniles who commit a serious crime, such as armed robbery, are likely to be held until their hearing. Detention facilities typically have intake personnel who assess the juvenile’s needs, either informally or through a risk assessment instrument. If a juvenile meets one of the aforementioned criteria, then the judge must assess the matter in order to keep the juvenile in detention. Unlike in the adult system, juveniles do not have the right to post bail and gain an early release prior to the adjudication hearing (another right denied to juveniles).
In the adjudication hearing, the judge or master presides over the fact-finding inquiry. Delinquency adjudication hearings resemble criminal trials, whereas abuse and neglect or other family-related adjudications are more like a civil trial. Once the juvenile office files a petition, the court must notify the juvenile of the allegations in the petition and the time and place of the hearing. Most adjudication hearings are closed to the public and only the juvenile, parents, and counsel may attend. This practice, which dates from the early days of the court, ensures that the public’s learning of the proceedings does not harm the juvenile’s reputation. Furthermore, the juvenile’s records are to remain closed and then destroyed when the juvenile reaches the age of majority; however, this rule is often not followed. In fact, some states now allow juvenile court records to be admitted into adult criminal proceedings as evidence of prior criminal behavior.
Some jurisdictions hold the adjudication hearing informally: The judge sits at a conference table with the juvenile, the parents, and attorneys, if present, and the hearing seems more like a conference than a trial. Other jurisdictions hold a more formal, trial-like hearing in which the judge sits behind the bench and the defense and prosecution sit at separate tables. Larger courts may have a building dedicated to court proceedings, whereas smaller courts hold hearings in the county courthouse.
When a juvenile agrees to accept a ruling of delinquency and accept the treatment plan, the petition is considered uncontested. Accepting the judge’s decision is simply a formality. Often, the adjudication hearing is suspended if the juvenile agrees to the probation office’s treatment plan (similar to a plea agreement). If the juvenile violates the informal probation, the adjudication will resume. As in the adult criminal courts, most cases are handled informally, with juveniles agreeing to an informal probation in exchange for either dismissing the petition or suspending the adjudication hearing. Furthermore, some prosecutors and probation officers will bargain on the specific charges in the petition, hoping to name a less serious offense in exchange for the juvenile agreeing to the treatment plan.
In contested cases the hearing will be more formal, because the state must present its case before the judge. The juvenile has the right to counsel but may waive that right, and most do. If this is the case, the judge must determine whether the juvenile has made the decision freely, voluntarily, and intelligently. This means that the judge must determine whether the juvenile understands the risks of continuing without counsel or whether his or her waiver has been coerced. Thus, the judge will question the juvenile before proceeding. Once both sides have presented the facts and examined witnesses, the judge makes a determination of whether the juvenile is delinquent or in need of supervision in other matters.