Juvenile court

How do states address the criminal behavior or delinquency of youth? Every state has a juvenile court directed toward addressing the criminal behavior of children and adolescents differently than adults.  The underlying purpose and authority of the juvenile court differs between states. Some states establish the juvenile court as a higher or lesser court, and many structural differences exist on important features such as judicial selection, specialization and training. Juvenile courts may be responsible for screening referrals for legal sufficiency and making early diversion decisions or these decisions may reside with prosecutors. Youth may be indiscriminately shackled in courtrooms in some states while others prohibit the practice. These distinctions are important as they influence the experience of families in court and the role of the juvenile court judge.

Purpose clauses

Parens patriae:

This Latin phrase means "father of the nation" and applies to state clauses that reflect the juvenile court judge’s earliest role as the state’s designated protector of children. This concept stemmed from the ‘child saving’ Progressive Era that sparked the dawn of juvenile courts at the turn of the 20th century.

Due process era:

Refers to the period of reform of the 1960's and 1970's where federal laws, model acts, and Supreme Court cases influenced the addition of procedures for "due process" protections.  Formal court procedures granted juveniles rights similar to those available in (adult) criminal court, such as: right to an attorney, to notice of charges, right against self-incrimination, rules of evidence, standards of proof, etc.

Balanced and Restorative Justice (BARJ):

Refers to states that incorporate BARJ, a model of reform first released in the early 1990's on the heels of the most punitive era of juvenile justice.  In these states, purpose clauses mention youth accountability to victims and the community, individualized competency development for offenders, and alternatives to youth incarceration.  This in turn held juvenile justice systems accountable.

Developmental Approach:

These states retain elements of prior categories, but have purpose clauses that mention the use of adolescent development or other research and/or require evidence based practices or data to assist the juvenile justice system. The still-emerging Developmental Approach is based on a foundation of adolescent development and brain research.  Reforms include keeping accurate data on interventions, results, and measures of fairness.

>> Additional history and links

Intake and court diversion

Diversion is a term used by juvenile justice system professionals to refer to very different things. In the field, 'diversion' may refer to a program, a decision for less severe alternative action, or an outcome. Community diversions occur before the decision to make a juvenile court referral is required, as with a "police diversion".  Court diversions occur when a juvenile is accused of violating the law and the situation falls under the jurisdiction of the juvenile court, but alternative court processing can be pursued instead of prosecution, adjudication, or incarceration.  

  • The decision to divert occurs when there is discretion to select alternatives that keep youth from entering or progressing to higher levels of juvenile court involvement. 
  • A diversion program refers to the rehabilitative or restorative service itself. Diversion programs are usually provided by community-based organizations (non-profit, prevention, schools), executive branch agencies (police, prosecutor, human service, juvenile justice), or as a juvenile court service. 
  • Diversion as an outcome is the alternative result tracked by researchers or policy-makers who measure the number and characteristics of youth successfully 'diverted' from entering, re-entering and progressing further into the juvenile justice system.

Youth can be referred to a diversion program as part of a planned course of action when the decision to divert is made.  If the juvenile complies with terms of a diversion plan and successfully completes the diversion program, the youth is “diverted” from the particular juvenile court stage.

>> More about court diversions

About this project

Juvenile Justice GPS (Geography, Policy, Practice, Statistics) is a project to develop a repository providing state policy makers and system stakeholders with a clear understanding of the juvenile justice landscape in the states.

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