Crime Before Their Prime: Writing About the Juvenile Justice System

By Maria Alexander

mariaalexanderWhile writing my new YA novel, Snowed, I discovered that teen crime was fueling the plot in a big way. Since I was only familiar with the adult legal system, I stopped to research how the juvenile justice system differed. Here’s a brief rundown of what happens when teens are caught for their crimes.

Built for Speed

The juvenile system is greatly expedited compared to that for adults. This makes sense because if the system drags on too long, the young offender might “age out” and become an adult, falling under an entirely different set of rules. But the juvenile system operates under the theory that kids can course-correct through early intervention and that sometimes a child’s home life plays a significant role in criminal behavior.

Stages of the Juvenile Judicial System

The system can vary greatly from state to state – even from county to county. For example, while this article describes four main types of hearings, California has seven. So, whether you’re writing about teen crime or a young person in your life is in trouble, be sure to research procedures for your specific region. What follows are the broad strokes of that process.


When a youth is arrested, they aren’t always immediately taken into custody. The arresting officer might let them go home and send a “Notice to Appear” for when they have to return to the station to meet with a probation officer. Or, the officer might send the youth straight to the juvenile detention center and file the case with the district attorney.

But if the youth is locked up, the district attorney will file a petition for what’s known as a “detention hearing” by the next working day. Courts are closed on Saturdays, Sundays and federal holidays. So, if the crime is committed late on Friday or during the weekend, the district attorney won’t file the petition until the following Monday (or Tuesday if Monday is a federal holiday).

Detention Hearing

If the youth is locked up for at least 2 days, the judge will have a detention hearing to determine whether the youth can go home or if they have to stay in detention until the arraignment.


Much like the process for adults, the judge informs the offender what the charges are during the arraignment. The juvenile then makes a plea of “guilty,” “not guilty,” or “no contest.” In some states it’s “admit” or “deny.” The youth offender may be kept at the detention center at this time or released to the custody of their parents or guardians.

However, not all juvenile court judges will formally charge a youth with a crime. Forgoing formal court procedures, the judge will instead call the youth to appear to be given a lecture, a fine, probation, or some other punishment short of full criminal charges. If at this time the judge determines that the youth is the victim of abuse, he or she might initiate removal of the child from their home and put them in foster care.

Pretrial Hearing

Following closely on the heels of the arraignment – a couple of weeks at the most – is the pre-trial hearing. At this hearing, attorneys share all the evidence gathered to date. They might settle the case at this point. If not, the court will go ahead and hold the adjudication hearing, probably within the week.

Adjudication Hearing

Also known as an “adjudicatory hearing” or simply “juvenile court trial,” this hearing is the equivalent of an adult court trial. While states procedures may vary, youth offenders usually don’t get a jury trial, just a judge. That’s because the process of choosing a jury, having the trial, and then going through deliberations could take too long and risk the youth turning 18 years old. In most cases, the judge alone will look at the evidence and charges, and then decide whether or not the youth is guilty. Of course, if the crime is serious enough, regardless of the youth’s age, they might be tried as an adult instead.


If the youth is found guilty, the judge announces sentencing at the juvenile court disposition.  

The Cost to Families

Parents often have to provide for both the expense of their child’s attorney (if they don’t qualify for a public defender) and any restitution to the victims. One of the most surprising things I discovered is that they must also cover cost of the “three hots and a cot” that the juvenile needs while imprisoned for the length of their sentence.

That altogether seems like more than any parent could bear, in addition to the emotional toll of their child’s incarceration. But if the Senate passes The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Reauthorization Act of 2014, or S. 2999, put forth by senators Sheldon Whitehouse (D-Rhode Island) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), we’ll have a better chance of keeping kids out of both detention and adult prisons. And that would restore a measure of hope, indeed.

Maria Alexander is the award-winning author of Mr. Wicker and lots of short dark fiction. Her latest book, Snowed, is a YA mystery fantasy from Raw Dog Screaming Press. BOLO Books says it’s “well on its way to becoming a cult favorite” and teens are calling it “kick ass.” Want more? Visit

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