The following post was written by researchers at Instant Checkmate, a public records search service. 

By: Instant Checkmate

Many people don’t realize that juvenile court and criminal court are actually two separate judicial systems that operate differently, and for different reasons. Of course there are general similarities, but this is due to various overarching elements of the legal process that are implemented in both court systems.

Prior to the year 1900, age didn’t matter and all children who were seven older were thought to be capable of understanding the difference between right and wrong and therefore were punished as adults. Crazy, right?

Not to condone theft, but I’m pretty sure a seven-year-old stealing a piece of candy is different than a 40-year-old stealing a car! Imagine if these two acts carried the same punishments. Clearly, the lack of legal separation between minors and adults caused some issues because an entire court system was formed for juvenile offenders only.

The First Juvenile Court

The first juvenile court in the U.S. was established in 1899 in Cook County, Illinois. This court system was dedicated to criminals under the age of 18 since this is the age in which an individual was officially recognized as an adult. Offenders over 18 went to adult criminal court where sympathy was scarce and punishments were harsh.

In the early 1990s there was a significant increase in violent offenses committed by juveniles. This is likely due to the fact that they thought they could get away with it since they wouldn’t face the same repercussions as their adult counterparts.

Well, the lawmakers acted quickly to fix this loophole and ruled that juveniles who commit severe or violent crimes can be transferred to criminal court at the discretion of a judge. Once transferred, juvenile offenders would be tried and punished as adults, which included the potential of being sentenced to life in prison.

Differences In Court Systems

Some aspects vary by state, but here are some of the most significant differences between the current justice systems for adults and juveniles.

1. Definition Of Illegal Behavior

In criminal court, illegal activity is called a crime, and offenders are prosecuted for committing crimes. In juvenile court, crimes are referred to as delinquent acts. They’re only considered crimes when they are very serious, at which point the juvenile may be transferred to criminal court and tried in the adult system.

2. Overall Goal

In criminal court, the overarching goal is to punish the adult for his or her offense. Adults rarely receive sympathy for their actions, and there is little (if any) hesitation when it comes to sentencing. In juvenile court, the overarching goal is to rehabilitate and reform minors so that they can function properly when they reenter society. Some options include probation, special rehabilitation programs, and parole. These programs are intended keep the minor out of jail or prison in the long run.

3. Right To A Trial

In criminal court, the defendant has a right to a public trial by jury. The prosecution and the defense will provide respective evidence and arguments for or against the given case. The jury will then vote and provide the verdict. In juvenile court, minors do not have the right to a trial by jury. They get what’s called an adjudication hearing in which both sides present their argument and evidence directly to a judge. The judge then makes the final decision of whether or not the minor is delinquent or if transfer to criminal court is necessary.

Juvenile Transfer To Criminal Court

Juveniles are often transferred to criminal court for violent crimes such as murder, manslaughter, attempted murder, assault, and rape, but some nonviolent offenses call for transfer as well. They can also be transferred if their delinquent acts become repeat offenses or if they continuously violate their parole. The focus in the courtroom is then turned away from rehabilitation and onto the severity of the crime with the intention of punishing the offender regardless of age.

Methods Of Transfer

In the U.S., there are currently three different ways that juvenile cases can be transferred to adult criminal court:

● Judicial Waiver — A juvenile court judge may transfer the case to criminal court in order to deny the offender the protections provided by the juvenile court system.

● Statutory Exclusion — Certain states have statutes that address which offenses are removed from the jurisdiction of the juvenile court system. A review of the person’s prior criminal history, age, and severity of the offense are also taken into account.

● Direct File — Several states possess a category of offenses in which the prosecution has the sole power decide whether to file the case in juvenile court or adult criminal court.

Moral Of The Story

The criminal justice system is built on an intricate web of legal operations that are dependent upon many different factors. The information outlined above is intended to show that there are significant differences between juvenile court and adult criminal court, but that does not mean juveniles are entitled to a get out of jail free card. If an offense is severe enough, a minor loses all aspects of juvenile protection and must face extremely serious consequences in the adult criminal court system.