Juvenile Justice Process

Juvenile Justice Process in the United States

Points of Intervention

There are many steps community partners, families, and others can take to positively impact youth both before and after they have come into contact with the juvenile justice system.

There are distinct points in the juvenile justice process at which communities and agencies can intervene in the lives of youth involved with the system. Though they can vary by state, general examples of such interventions at each of the major steps are shown below. See below to learn more about the different points of intervention within the juvenile justice system.

Initial contact and referral

When a youth is suspected of committing an offense, the police are often the first to intervene. Law enforcement officers respond to calls from schools, parents, the concerned public, and victims of a suspected offense. When responding to a call, law enforcement officers typically have discretion about how best to respond.

Common responses include

  • informal “adjustment,” either on site or at the station house;
  • diversion (see below) of youth from formal processing based on certain conditions; or
  • filing of a formal complaint or charges.

Increasingly, law enforcement departments are partnering with community agencies to assist police responding to calls by co-responding with police officers, co-training police on how best to respond to youth, or providing an alternative place for law enforcement officers to take youth other than a detention facility or jail. Communities can partner with law enforcement on such efforts, to ensure that youth are processed in the manner that is best for the community and the youth.


“Intake” generally refers to the process after a formal referral by law enforcement (or, in some cases, from a parent or family member), during which an assessment process determines whether a case should be dismissed, handled informally, or referred to juvenile court for formal intervention. While the general function of intake is consistent, its structure varies significantly across jurisdictions. Intake may be the responsibility of

  • probation officers,
  • the juvenile court,
  • the prosecutor’s office,
  • a state juvenile justice agency, or
  • a centralized intake center.

The discretionary decisions made during intake represent a significant opportunity to identify and engage community-based alternatives to detention. By working with intake units to provide assessment services and diversion opportunities, communities and agencies can ensure that the needs of youth are identified early and that youth are diverted (when appropriate) before they and their families experience the negative effects of system contact.


One process that can happen at any point in a youth’s involvement with the juvenile justice system is diversion. Diversion is an attempt to channel youthful offenders away from the juvenile justice system. The concept of diversion is based on:

  • the theory that processing certain youth through the juvenile justice system may do more harm than good;1
  • the idea of reducing stigmatization for youth who have committed relatively minor acts might best be handled outside the formal system; and
  • a method to address overburdened juvenile courts and overcrowded juvenile justice institutions, so that courts and institutions can focus on more serious offenders. Learn more about the impact of diversion programs of youth involved in the juvenile justice system.


The most common use of secure detention facilities is as a short-term “holding” facility for youth while they await processing and/or disposition. However, some states also use detention as a holding facility for youth awaiting placement after adjudication. In any case, detention is not intended to be punitive. The state or local jurisdiction is usually responsible for providing education, recreation, medical attention, assessment, counseling, and other intervention supports and services. The intent is to maintain a youth’s well-being during his or her short-term stay in custody.

Two of the recognized benefits of detention services are maintaining the safety of the public and providing initial quality screening and assessment services for youth who come into contact with the justice system. The data collected through the use of a validated screening and risk and needs assessment tool can prove to be invaluable to the youth, family, court, and child-serving agencies as decisions are made that address the youth’s future.

Judicial processing

Judicial processing includes adjudication and disposition. Adjudication refers to the process of conducting a hearing, considering evidence, and making a delinquency determination. If a youth is found delinquent during the adjudicatory process, a disposition plan is developed. The disposition plan is similar to sentencing within the adult system. This plan details the consequences of the youth’s offense (e.g., probation, placement in a juvenile correctional facility, restitution). Development of the plan is based on a detailed history of the youth and assessment of available support systems and programs. It can include psychological evaluations and diagnostic testing.

There are many opportunities within judicial processing for communities and agencies to work with the courts. These entities can provide diagnostic and evaluation services, collaborate with the justice system to establish diversion options for youth, and establish community-based programs and services that can be incorporated into a dispositional plan.


Another option in the decision-making process for juvenile offenders is an order of dismissal of the pending case prior to adjudication. The delinquency charge is dropped but the conduct/behavior involved in the charge may be considered by the court and the court may order restitution or another disposition. If the court chooses to dismiss the case, the offense is identified as a dismissal rather than an adjudication in the youth’s court record.

Probation supervision

Probation supervision is the most common disposition within the juvenile justice system. Probation supervision is frequently accompanied by other court-imposed conditions, such as community service, restitution, or participation in community treatment services. For youth on probation supervision, this can be an important opportunity to provide physical and mental health services and other supports. Partnerships with communities and agencies can ensure that there is a range of services and programs available to meet the needs of youth on probation supervision.

Secure correctional placement

Placement in a secure juvenile correctional facility is the most restrictive disposition that a youth in the juvenile justice system can receive. Although all juvenile correctional facilities are designed to impose a sanction on the youth, protect the public, and provide some type of structured rehabilitative environment,2the characteristics of these facilities vary significantly.

Because of their secure nature and long-term custody of youth, these facilities are responsible for providing a range of comprehensive, individualized, and sustained services similar to those in detention (i.e., educational, recreational, medical, assessment, and counseling). However, some facilities have been criticized as being sterile and inappropriate for rehabilitative programming, and for fostering abuse and maltreatment.3Further, some facilities do not allow youth to maintain connections with their families and support systems, making it very difficult for the effects of any type of therapeutic intervention to be sustained.

Youth who end up in correctional placement should be afforded access to effective, evidence-based services and supports, through effective collaboration between facilities, the community, and applicable agencies.


Reentry is the final point in the juvenile justice processing continuum, and incorporates programs and services that assist youth transitioning from juvenile justice placement back into the community.4An effective reentry program involves collaboration between the juvenile justice facility staff, probation/parole officers, and case managers with other child-serving systems and community partners and agencies. This process begins well in advance of a youth’s release and ensures that the youth is linked with effective community-based services, which can be critical to his or her long-term success.

Since one of the goals of reentry planning is to link youth with community physical and mental health services and other supports that will be available after contact with the juvenile justice system ceases, reentry is a logical point in the juvenile justice system for a partnership with communities. These efforts are typically managed/supervised by a probation/parole officer. Communities must partner with correctional facilities to provide reentry planning and services to youth who will continue to require care upon release. These efforts need to begin early—shortly after the youth enters the facility—and should, whenever possible, involve the youth, his or her family, the probation/parole officer, and representatives from the community-based agencies that will be working with the youth on release from care. Learn more about reentry here.

1 Lundman, 1993
2 Bilchik, 1998
3 Greenwood, et al., 1996
4 Geis, 2003

Graduated Sanctions

Graduated sanctions or consequences are a continuum of disposition options that juvenile court judges and court staff have to help reduce delinquency. These sanctions have a dual role—protecting the public and children, and facilitating access to services for the juvenile offender. For graduated sanctions to reduce delinquency, they must work to ensure that the right juveniles are connected to the right programs at the right time.

Typically, graduated sanctions are divided into three to five major levels/categories and have programs and intervention strategies that work within each level. They include

  • immediate (such as community service or curfew restrictions);
  • intermediate (such as intensive supervision or electronic monitoring);
  • community confinement;
  • secure confinement; and
  • reentry/aftercare.

Each level/category identifies the behavior that has brought the youth to the court’s attention, possible program types or components, and services. Employment of effective graduated sanctions may bring additional objectivity to the court’s decision-making and more effective alignment of supports and services to needs.


Related agencies include:

  • National Institute of Justice
  • Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention
  • Tribal Justice and Safety


  • Suicidal Thoughts and Behaviors Among Detained Youth
  • Youth in Residential Placement
  • The Impact of Gangs on Communities
  • Victims, Judges, and Juvenile Court Reform Through Restorative Justice
  • Women and Girls in the Corrections System
  • Young Offenders: What Happens and What Should Happen
  • Youth Offenders in Adult Corrections

Related Youth Topics

This covers:


Juvenile Justice Process: Open and Free Legal Research of US Law

Federal Primary Materials

The U.S. federal government system consists of executive, legislative, and judicial branches, each of which creates information that can be the subject of legal research about Juvenile Justice Process. This part provides references, in relation to Juvenile Justice Process, to the legislative process, the federal judiciary, and the primary sources of federal law (cases, statutes, and regulations).

Federal primary materials about Juvenile Justice Process by content types:

Laws and Regulations

US Constitution
Federal Statutory Codes and Legislation

Federal Case Law and Court Materials

U.S. Courts of Appeals
United States courts of appeals, inclouding bankruptcy courts and bankcruptcy appellate panels:

Federal Administrative Materials and Resources

Presidential Materials

Materials that emanate from the President’s lawmaking function include executive orders for officers in departments and agencies and proclamations for announcing ceremonial or commemorative policies. Presidential materials available include:

Executive Materials

Federal Legislative History Materials

Legislative history traces the legislative process of a particular bill (about Juvenile Justice Process and other subjects) for the main purpose of determining the legislators’ intent behind the enactment of a law to explain or clarify ambiguities in the language or the perceived meaning of that law (about Juvenile Justice Process or other topics), or locating the current status of a bill and monitoring its progress.

State Administrative Materials and Resources

State regulations are rules and procedures promulgated by state agencies (which may apply to Juvenile Justice Process and other topics); they are a binding source of law. In addition to promulgating regulations, state administrative boards and agencies often have judicial or quasi-judicial authority and may issue administrative decisions affecting Juvenile Justice Process. Finding these decisions can be challenging. In many cases, researchers about Juvenile Justice Process should check state agency web sites for their regulations, decisions, forms, and other information of interest.

State rules and regulations are found in codes of regulations and administrative codes (official compilation of all rules and regulations, organized by subject matter). Search here:

State opinions of the Attorney General (official written advisory opinions on issues of state law related to Juvenile Justice Process when formerly requested by a designated government officer):

Tools and Forms

Law in Other Regions

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