It’s one of every parents’ worst nightmares. Your adolescent or teenager is hours late for curfew. There is a knock at the door after midnight. You look out the window and see a police officer. Immediately, your heart sinks. You open the door and see…your child standing next to the officer. Your feelings turn from horror to confusion to anger. Why is my perfect little angel staring at her shoes? Why do I smell marijuana?
Congratulations! You are now the proud parent of a juvenile delinquent. You may be wondering how your sweet little baby got into this situation. Do not get discouraged. If you live in North Dakota, your child is one of 4,571 delinquent cases in 2015.
A delinquent child is a child who commits a delinquent act. According to the Uniform Juvenile Court Act, a delinquent act by a child is conducted by a juvenile that, if committed by an adult, would be in violation of criminal law. Think misdemeanors and felonies. The word delinquent is used for juveniles instead of “criminal” to avoid stigma.
Perhaps instead of committing a delinquent act, your child is always skipping school, or doesn’t listen to parents or guardians, or is caught smoking cigarettes. You are the proud parent of an unruly child. Put plainly, an unruly child is one who is beyond parental control and refuses to obey legitimate authorities, including school officials and teachers.
Juvenile court is a wholly separate court system from adult court. While juvenile court may look and sound like adult court, its entire purpose, as explained further below, is to focus on the best interests of the child. Juvenile court is geared toward treatment, not punishment. A child admits or denies committing an act instead of pleading guilty or not guilty. The juvenile court determines the child’s disposition instead of a sentence. The child’s disposition is based on a graduated scale of probation, treatment, and removal from the home.
How Juvenile Court Works
Your child’s delinquent or unruly act will be referred to the juvenile court. A referral is a written report made by a law enforcement officer, a teacher, a parent, or another individual who is concerned about the welfare of the child, and sent to juvenile court. A juvenile court officer reviews the referral and determines whether to handle the child’s case informally or formally.
A case that is handled informally is called an informal adjustment. The juvenile court officer, the child, and the child’s parents or guardians all meet without any judges or lawyers present. The juvenile court officer explains the allegation, or the reason for the referral (e.g., delinquent act or unruly child). The child and the parents have a conversation with the juvenile court officer about the facts of the case and the possible disposition.
If the child admits that she committed the act, the juvenile court officer determines the appropriate disposition. This could include probation, community service, restitution to any victims, treatment or counseling, removal from the home and placement in foster care, or placement at a youth correctional center.
If the juvenile denies the allegation at the informal adjustment, the juvenile court officer refers the case to the county prosecutor. The prosecutor reviews the reports and determines which delinquent acts were committed or whether the child was unruly. The prosecutor files formal paperwork with the juvenile court, making specific allegations about the child’s behavior.
The child and the parent are served with a summons to appear in court and a petition setting forth specific allegations about the child’s behavior. The child and the parents make an initial appearance before a judge (or referee) in juvenile court. At the initial appearance, the judge explains the allegations to the child. The judge explains the child has the right to be represented by an attorney and one will be appointed if the child cannot afford an attorney. The parents also have the right to their own attorney. The child can either admit the allegations or deny the allegations in front of the judge.
If the child admits the allegations, the judge determines the disposition of the child. The judge considers the child’s age, the child’s juvenile court history, and the nature of the act. The prosecutor and the juvenile court officer give the judge their recommendations for disposition. The parents have the opportunity to tell the judge what they think is appropriate. The child also has the opportunity to speak with the judge.
If the child denies the allegations at the initial appearance, the juvenile court will schedule an evidentiary hearing. At this hearing, the prosecutor must prove each allegation. The prosecutor treats the evidentiary hearing just like a bench trial in a criminal case by calling witnesses to testify, introducing exhibits, and arguing to the judge that the evidence supports the allegations. Based on the evidence, the judge determines whether the child committed the acts or not. If the judge determines the child committed the acts, the judge moves to the dispositional phase as described above. If the judge determines the child did not commit the acts, or the evidence was insufficient to prove the child committed the acts, the judge dismisses the petition.
Today, a child in juvenile court has the same rights as an adult criminal, but this was not always the case. When the first juvenile courts were established around the turn of the 20th century, states were free to implement rules that would be deemed unconstitutional today. In 1967 the United States Supreme Court determined in In re Gault that the juvenile court must follow due process requirements. This included rules of procedure, rules of evidence, the right to legal representation, established burdens of proof, and Constitutional rights like a 4th Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizure and a 6th Amendment right to confront adverse witnesses. A sea change followed.
Soon other decisions shaped the nature of juvenile court as we know it today. In 1970, the Supreme Court determined delinquency must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. In 1971, the Supreme Court determined that jury trials are permitted though not required. In 1975, the Supreme Court set severe restrictions on the transfer of juvenile court cases to adult court. In 1984, the Supreme Court stated that a child may be held in pretrial detention for the child’s protection if it was in the child’s best interest. In 1985, the Supreme Court held that schoolchildren have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their personal property on school grounds and that school officials cannot search this property without probable cause. In 2005, the Supreme Court determined that a juvenile who commits a capital crime cannot be sentenced to the death penalty, which invalidated 72 death-row sentences of juveniles in 12 states. In 2010, the Supreme Court determined that juveniles cannot be sentenced to a life sentence without parole unless the case was a homicide. In 2011, the Supreme Court determined that the age of a juvenile must be considered in whether the child felt free to not answer questions asked by a police officer.
Today, North Dakota follows its own Rules of Juvenile Procedure. The scope of these rules is “to protect the best interests of children and to address the unique characteristics and needs of children.”
Why Do We Have Juvenile Court?
“Children are the future.” It’s not just a warm fuzzy statement. It’s a philosophy that is applied to the purpose of the juvenile court. In the olden days, children received the same punishment for a crime as adults. Now the goal is to focus on what is best for the child, not what is best for society. The goal is the treatment of the child’s needs, not punishment for the child’s actions. If a child needs counseling, the child will be referred for counseling. If the child is not amenable to treatment (they tried the treatment and it didn’t work), the child is removed from the home.
Noncriminal hearings and the removal of the stigma of being called a “criminal” are necessary to give primary consideration to the needs of the child. This is achieved through hearings that are closed to the public. Juvenile records are sealed and cannot be opened without a court order. There are no long-term confinements. If a juvenile is sent to a detention facility, the child is separate from adult offenders.
I once tried a case involving a sexual assault where the victim was a teenage girl and the offender was a 50-year-old male. I called as an expert witness Ken Lanning, a former special agent with the FBI who specialized in crimes against children. Mr. Lanning attempted to explain teenage behavior to the jury. The explanation was simple: Adults have a dual expectation of teenagers. We expect them to act like grownups, but we also expect them to act like little angels.
Parents are constantly encouraging their children to become more independent as preparation for the real world. So don’t be surprised if your child leaps ahead a few years and starts doing grown-up things, even if those grown-up things are not yet legal for your child. A trip through juvenile court may be all it takes to turn your child from the path of repeat criminal offender to reformed young adult. And that’s the whole point – juvenile court aims to reform behavior, not punish it.
If your little angel was caught acting like a grown-up and now both of you are involved with the juvenile court, call us at 701-297-2890 or send us an email below.