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Criminal Law FAQs

What Happens if My Child is Arrested?

For almost a hundred years, there has been a separate system of justice for juveniles in the United States. Legislators have attempted to design a system that focuses on rehabilitation and education rather than punishment and retribution. When a minor is arrested and taken into custody, they will likely be referred to an “intake officer” who specializes in juvenile justice. That officer will first evaluate the case and the circumstances, and then decide whether formal charges are necessary. Depending on the severity of the crime and the minor’s criminal history, an intake officer can decide not to move forward with formal charges and can choose instead from less severe penalties ranging from an informal reprimand, to counseling, compensation for property damage, or community service.

Depending on the severity of the crime and the child’s record, an intake officer may decide that formal charges are necessary. A minor might remain in custody in a juvenile justice facility or a foster home while waiting for their arraignment, where a juvenile court judge will read the minor the charges against him or her. At that point, the lawyers for both sides will usually discuss whether a plea agreement is possible or desirable, or whether the case should move forward. In the juvenile justice system, there are no jury trials and all cases are heard before a judge. The judge then makes the decision as to whether the minor should be “adjudicated delinquent,” which is analogous to being found guilty in adult court.

Juveniles, like adults, have to the right to an attorney and the right to remain silent. If they are in custody, law enforcement must give them the Miranda warnings so that they can better know their rights before they answer any questions.

There are certain kinds of crimes — called “status offenses” — that are only crimes if committed by a minor. These would include skipping school or curfew violation, and most of the time they carry less serious punishments. In contrast, there are crimes so severe that a judge can use a tool called “judicial waiver.” This means that a judge decides that a minor should not be afforded the protection of the juvenile justice system, but should be tried as an adult.

Juvenile records are sealed, which means they are not to the public. If a juvenile agrees to and meets certain conditions, his or her record can be expunged — erased, essentially — when he or she turns eighteen. As with most criminal matters, finding an experienced attorney early in the process can help guarantee your child gets the most favorable treatment possible.

Copyright © 2008 FindLaw, a Thomson Reuters business

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