In most states, the age for criminal culpability is 18 years, although it is legally as low as 14 in some states, in certain circumstances. Until children reach this legal age limit, they are not considered old enough to be held responsible for their criminal conduct, and will be considered “juvenile delinquents” instead of criminal defendants.
In an attempt to provide uniformity in the treatment of juveniles across the country, the Federal Juvenile Delinquency Act was passed by Congrin 1974. Under the Act, “juvenile delinquency;” is defined as any act that is otherwise a crime which has been committed by someone under the age of 18 years.
The Act requires that states conform to certain uniform procedures, including establishing special juvenile courts to deal with delinquents, with these special courts adhering to certain rules and procedures (set within the Act) and certain standards in the assessing of punishment (also provided within the Act). These juvenile courts are very powerful, and if it is in the best interests of the child, they can deviate from established criminal procedure. For example, a juvenile court may consider otherwise inadmissible evidence.
Under the Act, certain “status” offenses are also defined and juveniles committing these status offenses may not be detained by police or confined in any way. Examples of status offenses include running away, being caught with tobacco, and truancy.
The Act also requires that arrested juveniles be strictly segregated from adults when they are incarcerated. The barrier between juveniles and adults is strict and absolute, even to the point of prohibiting those serving food to juveniles from also serving food to adults who are likewise incarcerated. Similarly, the Act requires that juveniles cannot be held in jails or lockups where adults may be detained, except for a limited six hour period in order to allow for identification, processing, and transfer of the juvenile.
Punishment under juvenile law is to be imposed with the goal of rehabilitation of the child, and can include court-ordered vocational training and psychiatric treatment. Foster homes, child guidance clinics, and public juvenile protective agencies are also involved in the punishment/rehabilitation phase of juvenile delinquents.
Finally, juvenile records are accorded great privacy protections under the law. Unlike adult criminal records, juvenile records do not follow the individual once he reaches the age of majority.