Fact or Fiction: Children As Young As 7 Can Be Charged As Juvenile Delinquents

This is a fact! While the criminal justice and juvenile delinquency laws vary by state, children in New York, for example, can be charged as juvenile delinquents beginning at age 7. In fact, a 7-year old boy in upstate Brasher Falls, New York could soon be charged with rape.

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But in more than half the states, including Texas, Washington, and Florida, there is no minimum age to prosecute a child as a juvenile delinquent. However, arrest records of children are not available to the public.

According to legal aid data, 57% percent of children in New York City are Black or Hispanic, but they make up more than 90% of those arrested from ages to 7 to 11. Because of the disproportionate number of Black or Hispanic children entering the juvenile court system, some are trying to raise the minimum age that children must be in order to be prosecuted and detained as juveniles.

Some states have raised the minimum age to prosecute children as juveniles. The age is 12 in Massachusetts, California and Utah. More than a half dozen other states are also considering legislation that raises the minimum age.

What Does It Mean to Be Charged as a Juvenile Delinquent?

In all states, juvenile court is its own separate court, much like Probate Court or Family Law court. If a police officer believes that a minor has committed a crime, the officer can refer the case to juvenile court. Once the police officer refers a case to juvenile court, a prosecutor or juvenile court intake officer (often a probation officer) may decide to dismiss the case, handle the matter informally, or file formal charges.

A major difference between adult criminal cases and juvenile criminal cases is that there are many more options available for ways to resolve a juvenile case.

In an average year, about 20% of the cases referred to a juvenile court intake officer are dismissed and another 25% or so are handled informally. The remaining cases go through formal proceedings.

If a juvenile case is handled informally, the minor will usually be required to:

  • listen to a lecture
  • attend counseling
  • attend after-school classes
  • repay the victim for damages
  • pay a fine
  • perform community service work, or
  • enter probation.

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If a minor’s case remains in juvenile court, one of three things may happen:

Plea agreement. Plea agreements often depend on the juvenile’s compliance with certain conditions, such as obeying curfews, or reimbursing the victim for damages.

Diversion. When a judge diverts a case, the judge retains jurisdiction over the case while the juvenile undergoes counseling or performs community service or pays restitution. If the juvenile doesn’t fulfill these obligations, the court may reinstate formal charges.

Adjudicatory hearing. This is basically a trial in juvenile court where both sides present evidence and the attorneys argue the case. In most states, the hearing is before a judge, not a jury.

What Is Juvenile Detention?

Juvenile detention is short-term jail for young people while they await adjudication in court or placement elsewhere. The main difference from an adult prison is that juvenile detention is focused on rehabilitating the youth. Juvenile detention facilities might have behavior management, writing classes, religious services, and instruction on how to manage money.

What do you think? What should the minimum age be for minors to be charged in juvenile court?

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