A juvenile is a minor, and a minor is someone who is younger than what each state’s law defines as the age of majority, typically 18 years of age in the United States, though in some states, the age is 17. Juveniles who participate in illegal behavior are said to be engaging in “juvenile offending,” while those who are caught committing these crimes are “juvenile delinquents.” To explore this concept, consider the following juvenile definition.

Definition of Juvenile


  1. A young person or youth


  1. Pertaining to, or suitable or intended for, younger persons
  2. Immature or childish behavior


1615-25    Latin [juvenīlis]

What is Juvenile Delinquency

Juvenile delinquency is a term used to refer to the participation of minors in illegal behaviors and activities. The juvenile justice system, including juvenile detention centers and juvenile courts, have been established to specifically handle these kinds of offenses. The system recognizes that young people need to be handled differently than adults, and provides a specialized way of evaluating minors, detaining them, and offering them treatment. Depending on the nature and severity of the crime the minor commits, however, it is possible to charge him as if he were an adult at the time of the offense.

More minors, especially over the course of the past few decades, have been arrested for juvenile delinquency before they reached their early 20s than ever before. Experts believe this may have more to do with the fact that criminal justice measures have become more aggressive, and that zero-tolerance policies have been put into effect, rather than there being any significant change in the way minors behave. The increase may also be due to an increase in many youths’ potential to commit serious crimes. Examples of juvenile crimes include property crimes, violent crimes, and status offenses (actions that are only illegal because the offender is a juvenile).

Because youth violence rates in the United States have dropped to about 12 percent of what they were when they were at their peak back in 1993, this decrease suggests that most of the activities for which minors are arrested are non-violent in nature. Juvenile delinquency is often considered normal adolescent behavior, since most teens commit non-violent crimes at least once during their youth, often only during their adolescent years.

Those who are repeat offenders, or who commit violent crimes, are more likely to continue committing crimes regularly, and with increasingly violent tendencies, into adulthood and beyond. Unsurprisingly, these types of juvenile offenders tend to display antisocial behavior before they even become adolescents. Examples of juvenile delinquency can be grouped into one or more of the following three categories:

  • Regular delinquency –handled by the juvenile courts and justice system
  • Criminal behavior – handled by the (adult) criminal justice system
  • Status offenses – handled by the juvenile courts

Unfortunately, juvenile offenders who are able to leave their pasts behind them are still more likely to experience difficulties with substance abuse, finances, and their overall mental health than those who have never been in trouble with the law. These young people are likely to experience these issues, both during their adolescence and as fully grown adults.

Juvenile Detention Center

A juvenile detention center, also known as a “youth detention center,” or “juvenile hall” (“juvy” in slang), is a prison set up exclusively for juvenile offenders. This is where they await their court hearings, or to find out where they will be placed for the long term as a result of their sentences. These sentences are handed down by juvenile courts, which are courts specifically designed to handle juvenile offenses.

Juvenile offenders who are not returned to their families pending court processing are held in the juvenile detention center. This is not done for the purpose of punishing these youths, but to protect them, and others, while ensuring they show up for their court date. Youths who are convicted of committing a violent crime may then be sent to juvenile “secure confinement,” which is the prison system for young offenders. These facilities are designed to house and monitor youth offenders for a period of time ranging from a few months, to several years.

Juvenile Court

Juvenile court, also known as “young offender’s court,” is a court that has special authority to judge crimes committed by individuals who are not yet of legal age. Children and adolescents are typically treated differently than adults who commit the same crimes, and certain illegal activities committed by minors are not illegal for adults. Serious, violent offenses may result in a youth offender being tried as an adult.

Globally, the number of minors who have been tried as adults has been on an upward trend since the 1970s. The protection of children’s rights is a subject of debate, as the United Nations has set out to create a more ‘child-friendly’ justice system. Delinquent behavior still affects innocent individuals, however, ranging from relatively minor incidents, such as vandalism, to the more severe crimes of murder and rape.

Criminal Processing of Juvenile Examples

Juvenile cases are typically sealed, or barred from public viewing, in order to protect the minors’ rights to start again free from criminal records once they reach the age of majority. In this, minors’ rights are to be protected at all costs. However, there have been cases that have set legal precedent involving juveniles, and the details of those cases have been brought to light in order to better illustrate the legal arguments and the decisions resulting from them.

Juvenile Life Sentences

Terrence Graham was convicted of armed burglary and attempted armed robbery when he was only 16 years old back in July, 2003. The juvenile court judge sentenced him to 12 months in juvenile detention, most of which had already been served, followed by 12 months of probation. Just six months into his probation, Graham was arrested again for his part in a home invasion robbery committed with friends. Graham was convicted of a number of felony crimes, in addition to violation of his probation agreement.

Because of the seriousness of these violent crimes, and the fact that Graham had already been given a chance to “turn his life around,” which he had requested of the judge at his first sentencing, the judge sentenced Graham to life in prison for the armed burglary, and 15 years for the attempted armed robbery.

On appeal, Graham’s attorney argued that the sentence was unconstitutional; specifically, that it violated the Eighth Amendment, as it constituted cruel and unusual punishment. The District Court of Appeals of Florida held that Graham’s sentence was neither a violation of the Eighth Amendment, nor did it constitute cruel and unusual punishment.

The case was ultimately brought before the Supreme Court, which clarified that, while juvenile offenders cannot be sentenced to life without an opportunity for parole for a non-homicidal offense, this does not mean that a juvenile could not spend the rest of his life behind bars. The Court ruled that:

“A State is not required to guarantee eventual freedom to a juvenile offender convicted of a nonhomicide crime …  It bears emphasis, however, that while the Eighth Amendment forbids a State from imposing a life without parole sentence on a juvenile nonhomicide offender, it does not require the State to release that offender during his natural life.”

The Court further explained that, while the Eighth Amendment forbids states from issuing a no-parole sentence at the outset, it does not preclude the possibility that youths convicted of non-homicide crimes will spend the rest of their lives behind bars. Unfortunately, theory is not being put into practice, as 37 states within the U.S. still imprison juveniles for life for non-homicidal offenses.

The Florida Senate passed a law in 2014 declaring that a juvenile who is convicted on a murder charge can only be sentenced to life in prison after a mandatory hearing designed to weigh the age of the juvenile against the circumstances of the incident. This same law also provides for judicial committees to re-evaluate sentences that are handed down to those convicted of juvenile offenses to ensure that they remain constitutional and fair.

Supreme Court Rules on Death Penalty for Juveniles

In Missouri, in 1993, at the age of 17, Christopher Simmons came up with a plan to murder Shirley Crook, and recruited two of his even younger friends, Charles Benjamin and John Tessmer, to help. The boys planned to break into Shirley’s home, tie her up, and throw her off of a bridge. Tessmer chickened out, so Simmons and Benjamin broke into Mrs. Crook’s house, tied her hands up and covered her eyes. They then drove her to a state park and threw her off of a bridge.

A great deal of evidence was provided at trial, and Simmons ultimately confessed to the murder, performing a videotaped reenactment of the crime at the crime scene. Tessmer’s testimony proved that the boys had premeditated the crime. Simmons had apparently talked about the plan before going through with it, then bragged about it afterward. The jury came back with a guilty verdict, and recommended the death penalty, even after taking into account Simmons’ age, and the fact that he had no prior criminal history. The trial court imposed the sentence.

Simmons’ attorney appealed the sentence, though the appellate court upheld the trial court’s sentence. In 2004, the U.S. Supreme Court heard the case, as Simmons’ attorney argued that a 2002 Supreme Court ruling in Atkins v. Virginia, in which it was determined that the death penalty could not be given to an intellectually disabled person, should be applied to minors as well.

In 2005, the Court issued a 5-4 ruling abolishing the death sentence for anyone who was under the age of 18 when the crime was committed. Prior to this ruling, 25 states had set individual statutes allowing the death penalty at varying ages under 18. This ruling overturned all of those laws, and struck down the existing death sentences of 72 individuals who had been convicted of crimes committed prior to their 18th birthday.

Prior to this case, there had been a total of 22 executions of individuals who had been juveniles when their crimes were committed. Of these 22 executions, 13 took place in Texas.

Juvenile Justice System

The juvenile justice system involves parents, social workers, and probation officers in trying to save the offender from becoming involved in future crimes, due to the fact that the offender is so young, and may not even realize that he is participating in the kind of behavior that can change the course of the rest of his life. That being said, if an offender is convicted of a more serious crime, he may be tried as an adult, and sentenced to a state prison, rather than a juvenile facility. In some cases, these individuals are given limited sentences that max out once the offender reaches a specified age of 18, 21, 23, or 25 years old.

The juvenile justice system is not always an adversarial system, but geared toward helping youth offenders to turn their lives around. When a youth offender’s parents are a major part of the problem, having been neglectful, abusive, or losing control of him, the juvenile justice system may serve to find a foster home for the offender, treating him as a ward of the court. This is an option that is, for obvious reasons, not available in the adult system.

There are two types of model used to define a juvenile justice system: the restorative justice model, and the criminal justice model. The U.S. in particular has been shifting its criminal justice system towards a restorative model, because this method focuses more on the needs of the victims, the offenders, and the community involved in the incident, rather than putting the focus on harshly punishing the accused.

Within a restorative model, victims are active participants, and offenders are encouraged to apologize, perform community service, or participate in other measures that prove they have taken responsibility for what they have done. A restorative model is a way of helping the offender do penance for his crimes.

The criminal justice model relies on the government to punish those convicted of a crime, and it consists of three main branches: a) the legislative branch, which creates the laws; b) the adjudication branch, which is comprised of the courts; and c) the corrections branch, which includes prisons, probation, and parole. Under a criminal justice system, it is these three branches that are responsible for maintaining laws within a society.

Juvenile Probation Officer

Juvenile probation officers, or “JPOs,” supervise juvenile delinquents who have been either accused or convicted of crimes, and who have been placed on probation, or protective supervision. A juvenile probation officer’s main responsibility is to help juvenile offenders turn their lives around and become successful. Probation officers often work with social services, schools, law enforcement, and even the offender’s parents in order to help turn that goal into a reality.

Juvenile probation officers visit with other people in the offender’s home, school, workplace, and/or additional areas of the community familiar to the offender. These visits may either be weekly or monthly, depending on how strict the court is about supervision. Juvenile probation officers may also show up unannounced to check how compliant the offender is with his curfew, to conduct random screenings for drugs, and to monitor where the offender is at any given point in time. If the offender is placed on electronic monitoring, the juvenile probation officer is responsible for installing and attaching the equipment, and monitoring the offender’s activities.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Premeditation – The act planning, plotting, or deliberating something beforehand.
  • Status Offense – An activity only considered a crime when engaged in by a minor, such as underage drinking.