Juvenile justice consists of a wholly separate criminal law and procedure. In theory, this system of law and institutions, invented by progressive reformers at the turn of the twentieth century, operates 'in the best interest of the child'. In practice, the system no longer reflects the idealism of its founders. Juvenile justice is meted out in juvenile or family court, not the usual criminal court. The goal is not retribution or deterrence, but rehabilitation. The age that makes an offender eligible to be treated as a juvenile varies from below 16 to below 21 depending on the jurisdiction and, within a single jurisdiction, on the type of offense with which the offender is charged. Thus, there are statutes that permit (and in some cases mandate) treating a juvenile as an adult if the offense is a homicide or other serious crime of violence. Generally, the juvenile justice system treats the accused more leniently than the adult system even though the former provides fewer procedural rights.
The juvenile who is arrested is brought to a juvenile detention center, separate from the adult jail and typically administered by a specialized agency of local or county government. In the majority of states, the juvenile has no right to bail. In these jurisdictions, the juvenile's pre-trial status depends solely upon a judge's determination of whether the juvenile should remain in custody pending trial to prevent flight or to protect the community from risk of the juvenile's commission of a future offense.
The juvenile defendant is not charged with a statutory offense, but with being 'delinquent'. However, he is entitled to counsel and to a presumption of innocence. Juveniles have no right to trial by jury, but approximately one quarter of the states have enacted statutes providing for a jury trial option in juvenile cases. If the judge finds the juvenile defendant to be guilty (beyond a reasonable doubt), she may sentence the juvenile to probation or to an indefinite sentence in a juvenile correctional centre or reformatory up to age 21, at which point the juvenile must be released. The juvenile may be released earlier at the discretion of the correctional authorities and subject to conditions which those authorities might impose.
The juvenile justice system has always stirred controversy. Many liberals have argued that juveniles should enjoy the same constitutional rights that apply to adults and have criticized the juvenile justice system for being paternalistic and authoritarian. Conservatives have excoriated the leniency of the juvenile justice system, pointing out that young males under the age of 21 have the highest rates of offending. Despite the criticism, the juvenile justice system survives because there is no agreement on an alternative.
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