A parent whose child is arrested or referred to the juvenile court will face a very emotional time and have a multitude of questions. Although the juvenile court process can vary somewhat from state to state or even county to county, there are some basic steps which are common in all juvenile justice systems.

How Does a Juvenile Case Start?

A juvenile matter can arise when the police apprehend a minor for violating a statute, but more commonly it begins when a school official, parent, or guardian refers a problem with a juvenile to the court. The court intake officer will then evaluate the case, sometimes called a “juvenile delinquency” case, to determine whether further action is necessary, whether the child should be referred to a social service agency, or whether the case should be formally heard in juvenile court.

Can a Juvenile Be Held in Detention Before Trial?

If the situation is serious enough, the juvenile may be detained in a juvenile correction facility pending resolution of the matter or be sent to an alternative placement facility, such as a shelter, group home, or foster home. Juveniles do not have the option to pay bail or post a bond to obtain their release.

Are There Any Alternatives To A Formal Hearing in Juvenile Court?

If the intake officer decides that a formal hearing in juvenile court is not necessary, arrangements may be made for assistance from school counselors, mental health services, or other youth service agencies. The intake officer will consider a number of factors in deciding whether informal proceedings are appropriate, including the seriousness of the alleged crimes, the minor’s delinquency and social history, and the level of remorse expressed by the minor.

Initiation of Formal Proceedings

If the intake officer decides that the case should be heard in juvenile court, a petition is filed with the court stating the statutes that the child is alleged to have violated. This petition is the equivalent of a criminal complaint in the adult criminal justice process.  In cases of serious offenses, such as rape and murder, the matter may be referred to the district or county attorney’s office, after which the juvenile may be charged as an adult, tried in the adult criminal courts, and even sentenced to an adult correctional facility.

If the matter proceeds to juvenile court and the child admits to the allegations in the petition, a treatment program is ordered. If the child denies the allegations in the petition, a hearing like the criminal trial of an adult is held. At this hearing the child has both the right to counsel and the privilege against self-incrimination. Rather than try the case to a jury, however, a judge hears the matter and decides whether the juvenile has committed the acts alleged in the petition. If the allegations have not been proven to the court’s satisfaction, the judge dismisses the case.


If the judge decides that the allegations have been proven, he or she may rule that the child is a status offender or a delinquent. A second juvenile court hearing is then held to determine the disposition of the matter. If the juvenile is not considered to be dangerous to others, he or she may be put on probation. While on probation, the juvenile must follow the rules established by the court and report regularly to his or her probation officer. Serious offenders, however, may be sent to a juvenile correction facility.

Are There Any Alternative Treatment Options?

Yes, other treatment options include community treatment, such as making restitution to the victim or performing community service; residential treatment, in which a juvenile is sent to a group home or work camp, with a focus on rehabilitation; and nonresidential community treatment, in which the juvenile continues to live at home but is provided with services from mental health clinics and other social service agencies.

What Are the Major Similarities and Differences between the Juvenile and Adult Justice Systems?

There are major similarities and differences between the juvenile and adult justice systems. One of the main similarities is that in both systems, defendants are granted the same constitutional rights. These include the right to an attorney, the right not to be tried twice for the same crime, and others.

One of the main differences between the two is their overall focus. The focus of the adult justice system is mainly on criminal punishments—sentencing for adults usually involves a fine or jail time. In comparison, the focus in the juvenile system is more on rehabilitation.  Thus, juveniles are usually offered alternative sentencing programs like diversion or community service.

Should I Consult an Attorney About The Juvenile Justice System?

If your child has been arrested or referred to juvenile court, you should consult an attorney. The juvenile justice system is complicated, and the consequences involved can be great. An experienced juvenile attorney can help you learn more about your rights and defenses.