How do juvenile delinquency cases differ from adult criminal cases?

Juvenile delinquency cases are unique due to the risk of false confessions, the factors behind juvenile offenses and the legal treatment juveniles receive.

Each year in St. Louis, thousands of people under age 18 are arrested on suspicion of committing delinquent acts or status offenses. In 2012, the last year with data available, over 32,000 such arrests were made throughout Missouri, according to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. The resulting legal proceedings vary significantly from proceedings involving adults. It is crucial for juveniles as well as their parents to understand some of the most significant differences.

Legal treatment

Missouri's juvenile justice system aims to treat and rehabilitate juveniles who are adjudicated as delinquent, rather than punish them. To achieve this goal, juvenile justice professionals assess the form of treatment that each juvenile could benefit most from, given his or her background, health, relationships and past behaviors. Juveniles may also qualify for milder sanctions than convicted adults, including the following:

  • Performing community service
  • Paying restitution to victims
  • Remaining in their own community with supervision

In many cases, juveniles also benefit from greater confidentiality regarding their juvenile crime charges and adjudications. Unless a delinquent act is the equivalent of a Class A felony, a juvenile's records can only be shared with other parties under orders from a judge of the juvenile court.

Maturity issues

When juveniles break the law, they may do so for significantly different reasons than adults. Research has found that the region of the brain that regulates decision-making and impulse control does not finish developing until after age 20. As a result, adolescents and teenagers are more likely to make choices that are emotionally motivated, impulsive, shortsighted or illogical.

A juvenile's delinquent acts do not necessarily predict criminal activity later in life. According to Minnesota Public Radio News, the same research shows that nine out of 10 juveniles who commit delinquent acts, such as violent criminal offenses, do not engage in criminal activity as adults. It is therefore essential for the biological factors underlying juvenile offenses to be taken into account during juvenile justice proceedings.

False confessions

Juvenile justice cases are also distinct from adult cases because adolescents may be at greater risk for giving false confessions. This stems partly from their tendency to overlook the long-term consequences of their actions and partly from their desire to accommodate authority figures. According to The Wall Street Journal, one database shows that 38 percent of exonerated juveniles gave false confessions, compared to just 11 percent of exonerated adults.

Missouri's laws include several provisions to reduce the risk of false confessions resulting from juvenile interrogations. Juveniles must be allowed to speak with a parent, adult friend or attorney before waiving their rights. A confession is not admissible if a juvenile did not waive these rights or did not grasp the consequences of waiving them. Still, even with these protections in place, the threat of false confessions must be carefully considered during adjudication.

Seek qualified help

An understanding of the factors that make juvenile cases unique is essential for anyone who is under investigation for delinquent acts and anyone whose child has entered the juvenile justice system. An attorney with experience in juvenile law may be able to offer insights and work to reduce the long-term consequences that a juvenile faces as a result of these legal proceedings.