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Differences Between Juvenile Court and Adult Court

Anyone below the age of eighteen is considered a juvenile.  If you have reached the age of eighteen already, you may remember how certain things changed as you legally became an adult.  Even if you have been in Juvenile Court as a juvenile, you may or may not have noticed the difference in Court proceedings between Juvenile and adult Court.  The proceedings are very similar and the outcomes can be similar.  However, there are some significant legal differences.  While most of these differences apply across the United States, we practice specifically in Ohio, so, as always, we will be talking about Courts in Ohio.  If you have questions about how Juvenile Court works in a different state, you may want to contact a lawyer in that state.  And of course, if you have questions about Juvenile Court or any other legal issue in Ohio, feel free to contact us.

We have covered some of the differences between juvenile Court and adult Court in our article, “Is Your Child in Trouble with the Law? Read This First.”  We revisit them here so that it is easier to focus on the differences between the two.

When an adult is charged with a crime, the charge may be brought as either a misdemeanor (a relatively less serious crime) or a felony (a more serious crime, which carries a penalty of 1 year in prison or more). If found guilty, the crime will go on the adult’s record, and s/he will have to pay fines, serve time in detention, complete community service, or pay his or her debt to society in some other way as decided by the judge of the court.

Offenses that are considered criminal in adult cases, are civil offenses in the juvenile Court. The names of the offenses follow the adult criminal code. In the juvenile Court however, offenses are often referred to something like this: “would be a fifth degree felony if charged in adult Court.” or “would be a minor misdemeanor if the offender were an adult”.

There are some charges that apply to juveniles and not to adults, such as underage drinking, violating curfew, or truancy, and traffic laws that are unique to drivers under the age of 18.

No Jury in Juvenile Court

Adults have a right to a jury of their peers in deciding the outcome of any criminal charges brought against them.

Juveniles are not afforded a jury. All cases are tried before a judge or magistrate only.

Jail/Prison vs. Juvenile Detention Center

At its core, the adult justice system exists to punish those who violate the laws of the city, county, state, or federal government.

The juvenile court system, on the other hand, primarily seeks to rehabilitate minors found to be in violation of the law. Time in a juvenile detention center may feel to a child like punishment, since they are kept away from their family and friends, with limited visitation time. However, the treatment of residents in a detention facility is very different. Juveniles in a detention center continue to go to school, and work with counselors.

Pretrial Detention for adults and juveniles

Both adults and juveniles may sometimes be required to spend time in jail or juvenile detention center prior to a trial. For adults, this is usually true for violent crimes.

For juveniles, a judge may sometimes order a juvenile to remain in a detention center a few days while the child is evaluated to determine if there is a risk that a child will likely do harm to self or others. It is very common for a juvenile held for a risk assessment to determine this risk. A juvenile can usually be released with home GPS monitor into the care of parents or other adult who can supervise the child’ activities while awaiting trial.

Verdicts for adults and juveniles

When charged with a crime, an adult will appear in Court for an initial hearing and pleade either “guilty,” “not guilty,” or in some cases “no contest”.  Juvenile Court does not use these terms. A juvenile will enter a plea of either “admit” or “deny” at the initial Court hearing.

Criminal cases in adult court usually end with a guilty or not-guilty verdict from a a judge or jury. Adult defendants who have been found guilty are said to have been “convicted”.  An adult conviction becomes part of the person’s permanent record.

When a finding is made on a juvenile’s guilt or innocence, they are said to have been “adjudicated”. The judge or magistrate will adjudicate the child to be an “unruly child,” “delinquent juvenile,” a “juvenile traffic offender,” or the charges may be dismissed.  Juvenile adjudications are part of the juveniles records temporarily, but may often be expunged afer a period of time (more on expungement below).

Sentencing for adults and juveniles

The “sentence” in a juvenile case is called a “disposition.”   The judge or magistrate will draw up a “disposition order,” detailing what is expected of the juvenile following adjudication.  Disposition may include time in a juvenile detention facility, payment of fines, community service, apology letters to victims, It is extremely rare for a juvenile to go to the Department of Youth Services (DYS). DYS is a facility for juveniles who have committed very serious offenses and have resisted other attempts at rehabilitation.

Sanctions in juvenile Court usually consist of a combination of the following: time in the juvenile detention center, community service, house arrest, curfews, apology letters, very small fines, and/or counseling.

Generally speaking, those found delinquent will not be sent to adult detention facilities as minors. This can change, however, if a juvenile is found to be a “serious youthful offender,” a special category for minors who commit repeated or especially serious crimes. When a juvenile is sentenced to a detention center term that extends beyond their 21st birthday, the juvenile can be transferred to an adult jail or prison for the remainder of the sentence. These are called blended sentences, since the sentence is served in two different detention facilities based on the age of the offender. In Ohio, youth who finish out their terms in the juvenile detention center, and who have shown good behavior both while in detention and on parole, may have the adult jail or prison term forgiven.

Expungement and sealing of records is easier for juveniles

Expungement or sealing of juvenile offenses is easier and broader for juveniles than for adults. After a juvenile has been adjudicated as delinquent , unruly child, or juvenile traffic offender, the child may apply to have the public record sealed or expunged. When a record is sealed, it is moved to a secure file, separate from public records files. The adjudication record is then only available in certain circumstances to law enforcement or the Court.

When a record is expunged, any physical or electronic record of the charge is destroyed and is permanently irretrievable. A record that has been sealed will be expunged automatically by the Court five years later or upon the juvenile’s 23rd birthday, whichever is earlier. Once your record is expunged you may truthfully say that you have no Court record.

In order to have your juvenile record sealed or expunged, you must apply through the Court, and will likely undergo a hearing prior to the Court’s granting of your request.