When Your Teen Is In Trouble With The Law

When Your Teen Is In Trouble
With The Law
Despite a parent's best efforts, some young people find themselves in trouble with the law.  Peer pressure, the need to assert independence, or misjudgments can place your adolescent at risk of involvement in activities that result in arrest and processing through the local juvenile justice system.

Juvenile justice systems vary widely between communities.  If your child becomes involved in the juvenile justice system, your first step is to learn how the system in your area works. This knowledge will allow you to advocate for an outcome that teaches your child about the results of inappropriate behavior without hurting his or her prospects for the future.

There are three kinds of juvenile cases:

1.  Abuse/neglect cases, in which the child has been mistreated by the parents, and it is necessary for the court to take over temporary legal custody for the protection of the child.  Depending on the circumstances, it may also be necessary for the court to take physical custody, removing the child from the parents' home and placing the child with relatives or in foster care.
2.  Status offense cases, in which a child runs away from home, or is frequently truant from school, or is otherwise beyond parental control.

3.  Delinquencies (law violations), in which the child has committed an offense which would be charged as a crime if the child were an adult.
Begin by asking the processing officer at the police station (usually an officer in the juvenile division) to explain the process to you:
  • Why was my child arrested?
  • Will you have to detain my child or can he or she be released in my custody?  Will we need to post bond?
  • Will my child have a record simply as a result of the arrest?
  • What happens next?
  • Whom should I speak with to get assistance if my child is referred to juvenile court?
In many cases, particularly for minor offenses or a first-time arrest, youth will be released into their parent's custody.  They also may be diverted into a community service program where they will be expected to perform volunteer service.  In exchange, the charges against them will be dropped.

If your child is referred to juvenile court, however, what happens next will depend on the structure of the local system, the actions of the prosecutor's office, and the availability of diversion or treatment programs.  The prosecutor and juvenile court staff can tell you what to expect from the process. (Juvenile court staff include intake or probation department staff who often conduct preliminary investigations.  These investigations provide juvenile court judges with background information they use to decide on dispositions.)

You are well advised to seek legal counsel if your child is referred to the court system.  Youth of families without financial resources can request counsel from the local public defender's office.
Even if you obtain a lawyer to represent your child, you should accompany your teen through all juvenile justice system processing: intake, meetings with juvenile court staff and diversionary or treatment program staff, and any court hearings.

Keep in mind that the main intent of most juvenile justice systems is to help young people redirect their lives, not simply to punish them.  Still, your role in advocating for your child is crucial.  There are several alternatives to a court hearing, court decision, or detention.  Your child can be diverted, for example, into a treatment program.  Further, when a court hearing and decision are required, courts usually view a parent's involvement in the case positively when making a decision.

It is often in times of crisis that bonds between parents and adolescents are reaffirmed.  At those times, youth again turn to their parents for support and protection.  Troubling circumstances may present parents of adolescents with opportunities to show their love and support, to help their child obtain services to deal with specific problems, and to strengthen interpersonal connections that will benefit the family for years to come.

Access to Counsel (pdf) ~ Access to legal counsel in the juvenile justice system.

Alcohol Use and Delinquent Behaviors Among Youths ~ Youths who reported heavy alcohol use in the past month were the most likely to have participated in any of six delinquent behaviors:  (1) serious fighting at school or work, (2) taking part in a fight where a group of friends fought against another group, (3) attacking someone with the intent to seriously hurt them, (4) stealing or trying to steal something worth more than $50, (5) selling illegal drugs, (6) carrying a handgun.

Analysis of U.S. Curfew Laws ~ Although there are curfew laws for young people  across the country, no conclusive evidence can be amounted for their effectiveness in curtailing juvenile crime.

Family Disruption and Delinquency ~ This bulletin examines the impact that multiple changes in family structure have on an adolescent's risk of serious problem behavior.
Female Youths and Delinquent Behaviors ~ Alcohol and substance use was the most prevalent delinquent behavior among girls, aged 12 to 17.
Juvenile Criminal Cases ~ Information from the American Bar Association on how juvenile proceedings differ from adult criminal proceedings,  how juvenile proceedings are similar to adult criminal proceedings, when juveniles are tried as adults, and the parent's responsibility in juvenile cases.
Juvenile Info Network ~ Juvenile justice professionals foster the development of new reform programs in systems at the state and local levels.
The Juvenile Justice Foundation ~ Advocates for fair and appropriate adjudication of children being tried as adults.
Juvenile Status Offenses:  Treatment and Early Intervention (pdf) ~ A status offense is conduct by a minor that is unlawful because of the youth's age, but is not illegal for an adult.  Examples of status offenses include:  running away from home, chronic truancy, out-of-control or incorrigible behavior, underage alcohol possession, and curfew violations.
The Life-Style Violent Juvenile ~ Chilling interview with a gang member from New York City.
Little Criminals ~ Frontline report.

The Maximum Security Adolescent ~ The juvenile justice system, founded on the idea that childhood is a distinct stage of life is being dismantled, with more and more teenagers imprisoned alongside adults.  Excellent article in The New York Times.
Reaching out to parents of youth with disabilities in the juvenile justice system ~ Youth with disabilities are over-represented in the juvenile justice system.  Common disabilities in this population include ADHD, learning disabilities, developmental disabilities, depression, conduct disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and anxiety.
Sexual Violence Reported by Juvenile Correctional Authorities (pdf) ~ Approximately 1 in 5 of reported allegations of juvenile sexual violence were substantiated.
Why Teens Shoplift:  Rite of Passage or Cry for Help? ~ In most states, youth can be criminally prosecuted and retailers can demand and collect financial damages in civil court.  Repeat offenders are arrested and may be confined for a period of time.

Each year approximately 250,000 youth are prosecuted in the adult criminal justice system.

Only 51% of all black students and 52% of all Latino students graduate high school, and only 20% of all black students and 16% of all Latino students leave high school college-ready.  Visit Dropouts.

Juveniles who have been detained, are four to eight times more likely to die violently than the general population.  Visit Teen Violence.

Approximately 2/3 of males and ¾ of females in Chicago’s Juvenile Detention Facility meet the diagnostic criteria for one or more psychiatric disorder.  Visit Bipolar Disorder.

The California Youth Authority spends an average of $60,000 per year on each youth in its institutions and camps.

Suicide within juvenile detention and correctional facilities is more than 4 times greater than in the general population.  Visit Teen Suicide.

More than 1/3 of the youth in detention are there for status offenses and various technical violations of probation and other rules.  Visit Runaways.

A 2004 congressional report found that in 33 states, youth with mental illness are held in detention centers without any charges.  Visit Personality Disorders.

For those convicted of drug offenses, a lower percentage of black youth (37%) received probation than white youth (44%) or Latino youth (53%).  Visit Drugs & Teen Substance Abuse.

34 states have enacted "once an adult, always an adult" statues, meaning that a youth who is convicted in adult court will typically remain in adult court, regardless of the offense.

Information from the National Juvenile Justice Network.

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