How do Adult Criminal and Juvenile Courts Differ?

Tuesday, January 19th, 2016

If your child is accused of a crime, one of the first things you will want to do is acquaint yourself with the differences between the adult criminal system and that which exclusively tries children (minors younger than age 18). Understanding how these systems are designed to suit specific crimes, yet share some overlapping traits and rights can help better inform you on how to proceed in the event that your child is being prosecuted for a crime.


Despite charges that juvenile and adult courts are becoming increasingly similar (i.e., that courts are becoming harder on children, and that children are increasingly tried as adults – usually reserved for cases that are especially violent or sexual in nature), there remains many significant differences between the two.

Different terminology. To reflect some of the differences in procedure, terms unique to the juvenile court system are employed during trials and in legal files. Some differences include “Minor” in place of “Defendant”, “Adjudication” in place of “Trial”, “Delinquent act” for “crime”, and “Petition” rather than “Complaint”, amongst others.

No jury trials in juvenile court. In perhaps the biggest difference between the two systems, juveniles do not have the right to a trial by jury – instead, they will take their case to a judge or a bench officer, who will adjudicate the case in Family Court.

No right to bail. Rather than posting bail to get your child out of jail, you must wait to see if a court decides whether or not your child will be released.

Private hearings. Unlike most adult trials, hearings in Juvenile Court are closed off to the public, with the exception of offenses deemed serious and/or violent. This helps protect a minor later, if their record is expunged upon reaching age 18.

Parental/guardian questioning. Parents or guardians of a minor accused of a crime will very likely be questioned in court during a hearing, regarding their child’s behavior, home life, and other information. These responses can change the way a court handles a case, and it is wise to consult with a defense attorney prior to a hearing.

Greater opportunities for probation or diversionary programs. While theaim of adult jail is to punish, juvenile courts exist to help rehabilitate children, as well as provide them with a second chance to get their life on a productive path. Accordingly, many plans exist to keep a child out of a juvenile detention facility and, in turn, out of jail in their future; but oftentimes, it requires the skills of an experienced attorney to advocate for these alternative programs.

There are several extremely important similarities between the two systems that every individual whose child has been accused of a crime should know. Police and investigators will not make these or other aspects of the system abundantly clear, meaning parents may not know when their child’s rights are being violated.

Right to an attorney. Unlike adult criminal court, every child must be represented by an attorney throughout the Juvenile Court Process, once the child has been charged with a crime. You also have the right at any time in the process to change from a public defender to a defense attorney who specializes in juvenile law.

The right against self-incrimination, i.e. the ability to plead the 5th. Children, like adults, can invoke the 5th amendment in order to protect themselves from self-incrimination both on the witness stand and off.

The right to cross-examine witnesses. While adjudications in juvenile court are not, as mentioned, trials by jury, defense lawyers still have the right to cross-examine witnesses for the prosecution, giving the opportunity to show both sides of a situation as it may have occurred.

Juvenile law is a complicated and emotional field, and it takes a lawyer who has spent years working with minors to ensure that your child will receive the personalized attention they deserve. Leaving your child in the hands of the public legal system can have dire consequences. If you are concerned about your child’s future due to a recent brush with the law, contact Charles Block today.