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Juvenile vs Adult Justice

Each state has its own distinct juvenile justice system with its own laws and practices. This chart outlines some of the broad underlying beliefs that distinguish the juvenile justice system from the criminal justice system. For further details about a particular state's juvenile court system, see the National Center for Juvenile Justice's "State Juvenile Justice Profiles"

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The underlying rationales of the juvenile court system are that youth are developmentally different from adults and that their behavior is malleable. Rehabilitation and treatment, in addition to community protection, are considered to be primary and viable goals.

Rehabilitation is not considered a primary goal in the criminal justice system, which operates under the assumption that criminal sanctions should be proportional to the offense. Deterrence is seen as a successful outcome of punishment.
Limitations are placed on public access to juvenile records because of the belief that juvenile offenders can be successfully rehabilitated, and to avoid their unnecessary stigmatization. Court proceedings may be confidential to protect privacy. Open public access to criminal records is required, and all court proceedings are open to the public.
The juvenile justice system follows a psychological casework approach, taking into account a detailed assessment of the youth's history in order to meet his or her specific needs. The juvenile offender faces a hearing, rather than a trial, which incorporates his social history as well as legal factors. Defendants in the criminal justice system are put on trial, which is based largely on legal facts.
Law enforcement has the option of preventative detention -- detaining a youth for his own protection or the community's protection. Defendants have the right to apply for bond or bail.
Not all states afford juveniles the right to a jury trial. All defendants have a constitutional right to a jury trial.
A juvenile offender is judged "delinquent" rather than "guilty." Because of the individualized nature of the juvenile justice system, sentencing varies and may cover a wide range of community-based and residential options. The disposition is based on the individual's offense history and the severity of the offense, and includes a significant rehabilitation component. The disposition can be for an unspecified period of time; the court can send a youth to a certain facility or program until it is determined he is rehabilitated, or until he reaches the age of majority. The disposition may also include a restitution component and can be directed at people other than the offender, for example his parents. A defendant is found "innocent" or "guilty." The offender is sentenced to a specified period of time which is determined by the severity of the offense, as well as the defendant's criminal history.
Parole combines surveillance with activities to reintegrate the juvenile into the community. Parole is primarily based on surveillance and monitoring of illicit behavior.


Adapted from Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. "Juvenile Justice: A Century of Change." Washington DC: Office of Juvenile Justice, 1999.

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