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When a juvenile is suspected of committing a crime, police have the discretion to:……….

What Is Juvenile Court?

Each state has special courts—usually called juvenile courts—to deal with minors who have been accused of violating a criminal statute. The proceedings are civil as opposed to criminal. So, instead of being formally charged with a crime, juvenile offenders are accused of committing a delinquent act.

A juvenile case normally gets started when a prosecutor or probation officer files a civil petition, charging the juvenile with violating a criminal statute and asking that the court determine that the juvenile is delinquent. If the charges are proved and a delinquency determination is made, the juvenile offender comes under the courts broad powers. At that point, the juvenile court has the authority to do what it considers to be in the best interest of the juvenile.

Often, the juvenile court retains legal authority over the minor for a set period of time—until the juvenile becomes an adult, or sometimes even longer.

Eligibility for Juvenile Court

To be eligible for juvenile court, a young person must be a considered a “juvenile” under state law. In most states, the maximum age for juvenile court is 17.

Increasing the “Juvenile” Age

In most states, kids who are 17 or younger at the point of allegedly breaking the law, being arrested, or being referred to court go to juvenile court. But not all states define “juvenile” as someone younger than 18. (Note that some juveniles end up in adult court, and that the juvenile-court age may differ when status offenses, discussed below, are at issue.)

In 2013, 40 states (including the District of Columbia) put the upper age at which minors are considered juveniles at 17. In nine states, that age was 16. And in New York and North Carolina, 15 was the cap. Those states, however, were considering changing their cut-off points for at least some crimes as of 2014—in fact, New York went through with a change in 2017, diverting most defendants age 16 or 17 away from normal adult proceedings. And in 2017 Vermont even went as far as enacting a law that eventually bumps the criminal responsibility age up to 21.