Delinquency cases are defined as crimes that are committed by minors (under the age of 18) in which adult sanctions are not appropriate. However, in certain circumstances juveniles may be prosecuted by the adult system. Juvenile cases are exclusively handled in circuit courts. Overall, juvenile crimes are defined the same as adult crimes, however the punishments are different.
Juvenile crimes are administered by the Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ). If a juvenile is accused of committing a crime, he or she is brought to the local DJJ facility (JAC – Juvenile Assessment Center) where DJJ determines whether the juvenile should be released to a parent or guardian, or held in detention. This recommendation is based on risk to public safety and criminal history. If a detention is requested by DJJ, then a hearing must be held within 24 hours of the juvenile being taken into custody (similar to a first appearance in adult court). The three types of detention are secure, non-secure and home detention. In secure and non-secure detention a minor is held at a DJJ facility, for a general maximum of 21 days. In home detention the juveniles are placed into the custody of parents and must keep in contact with a DJJ officer.
If the State Attorney files charges on the juvenile, there is an arraignment hearing held. At this juncture a juvenile, with their attorney, will enter a plea of either not guilty, nolo contendere (not contesting the charges) or guilty. If a juvenile pleas not guilty, an Adjudicatory Hearing is scheduled. Sometimes, the State Attorney will agree to a diversion program, which a juvenile is then given some form of punishment (community service) in exchange for dropping the charges upon successful completion of the punishment. This may occur with juveniles with little or no criminal history and less severe charges.
An Adjudicatory Hearing is similar to a trial in adult criminal court. The juvenile has the option to take a plea of guilty or nolo contendere (not contesting the charges) or have the State Attorney prove that the juvenile committed the charges he or she was accused of. If the juvenile is found guilty, he or she has committed a delinquent act.
At a Disposition Hearing the juvenile is sentenced by the court. He or she may be sentenced after an Adjudicatory Hearing or on another date depending if a predisposition report (“PDR”) has been made by DJJ. The PDR is the recommendation by DJJ of how the juvenile should be sentenced. The Court may deviate from the sentence only if the Judge makes written findings. Juveniles then may be sentenced to probation or commitment to a DJJ program which helps rehabilitate the juvenile.