Juvenile Justice

Juvenile Justice in the United States


Youth under the age of 18 who are accused of committing a delinquent or criminal act are typically processed through a juvenile justice system. States, however, have the right to set lower age thresholds for processing youth through the adult system. In addition, some states automatically process any individual, regardless of age, through the adult criminal justice system for some serious offenses.

While similar to that of the adult criminal justice system in many ways—processes include arrest, detainment, petitions, hearings, adjudications, dispositions, placement, probation, and reentry—the juvenile justice process operates according to the premise that youth are fundamentally different from adults, both in terms of level of responsibility and potential for rehabilitation. The primary goals of the juvenile justice system, in addition to maintaining public safety, are skill development, habilitation, rehabilitation, addressing treatment needs, and successful reintegration of youth into the community.

Learn more about the juvenile justice process here.

The juvenile defendant should receive increasing layers of protection. However, adding protection to the juvenile defendant may, in turn, create other human rights inequities. For one, it means that a victim of crime faces a markedly different situation if his or her aggressor is a juvenile. It bears mention that many victims of juvenile crime are themselves juveniles who also have entitlements to the best interests of the child and also have claims to special status related to their age. Rendering the justiciability of a serious injury contingent on the age of the perpetrator is certainly understandable but, as the contingency becomes increasingly acute, the result may be victim frustration

Juvenile Justice in the Criminal Justice System

The United States Supreme Court has been active to preclude, through application of the Eighth Amendment, the juvenile death penalty as well as the sentence of life in prison without parole for juveniles (both for homicide and non- homicide crimes). Yet, harsh sentences have not
been purged from the juvenile justice system.

Solitary confinement persists as a sentence. Thousands of youth are held in isolation on any given day worldwide; approximately one-third of all countries employ the practice or legally condone its use. Ironically, even youth responsible for minor misconduct, and youth still only in the pre-trial phase, end up in solitary confinement. The persistence of solitary confinement in the case of youth is particularly aching in light of the condemnation this practice has received from various constituencies. Psychologists and mental health workers have documented the cruelty of this practice.

The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, tasked with prosecuting adult (and high-ranking) officials responsible for the 1994 Rwandan genocide, had refused to transfer cases to Rwanda because of national Rwandese law that replaced the repealed death penalty with the sentence of life in prison with “special conditions” (i.e., solitary confinement). In the Munyakazi case (May 28, 2008), an ICTR Trial Chamber identified inter alia the applicable sentence of life imprisonment in isolation without appropriate safeguards as a barrier to transferring the case to Rwanda. In October of that same year, the ICTR Appeals Chamber affirmed that ruling.

Rwanda subsequently modified its criminal legislation to preclude this sentence in the case of such transfers. For this and a number of other reasons, the ICTR approved for the first time (on June 28, 2011) the transfer of a case to Rwanda. In that case (Uwinkindi), the ICTR specifically held at para. 51 that “the current penalty structure of Rwanda is adequate as required by the jurisprudence of the Tribunal as it no longer allows for imposition of the death penalty or life imprisonment with solitary confinement.”

On April 10, 2012, in the case of Babar Ahmad and Others v. UK, the European Court of Human Rights took a more nuanced approach. It held that solitary confinement violates the European Convention on Human Rights if it involves complete sensory deprivation and total social isolation; moreover, even in cases of relative isolation, solitary confinement cannot be imposed indefinitely. This litigation involved the extradition to the United States (from the UK) of six terrorist suspects who, if ultimately convicted, would have risked imprisonment in a “Supermax” prison in Colorado where prolonged solitary confinement could have been imposed. The Court identified principles (procedural and substantive) to guide the imposition of solitary confinement. It nevertheless held that, in the context of the specific facts of the case, the conditions at this “Supermax” prison would not amount to ill- treatment in violation of the Convention.

The practice of solitary confinement of youth traces to the goals of protecting the minors from adults (or from each other), to isolating them when they are seen as threats, to secure medical treatment, and at times because their youth is paradoxically taken to be an aggravating rather than mitigating factor.

Deployment of solitary confinement to protect minors may simply lead them down the path of recidivism (and commission of more serious offenses) upon release. Criminal and immigration law have amalgamated to create a distinctively punitive apparatus with its own practices that, in turn, may be deleterious to the best interests of children. The situation of Omar Khadr, a minor associated with al-Qaeda deemed responsible for throwing a grenade in Afghanistan that killed a US service member, demonstrates how national security interests may generate another kind of shadow incapacitation systems— in this case Guantánamo— for persons categorized as unlawful combatants.

Other observers have explored this “crimmigration” phenomenon more generally (see, e.g., César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández, Creating Crimmigration, 2013 BYU L. Rev. 1457, Juliet P. Stumpf, Doing Time: Crimmigration Law and the Perils of Haste, 58 UCLA L. Rev. 1705 (2011)). Maybe, international law should, more rigorously, recognize the need to develop specific instruments to protect minors in the immigration, refugee, and asylum contexts.

In the United States, the future may be the court- based challenges to the solitary confinement of minors through the applicatio of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual treatment. (1)

Reform of the System

According to a report (see below) from the National Research Council at the National Academies, legal responses to juvenile offending should be grounded in emerging scientific knowledge about adolescent development, and tailored to an individual offender’s needs and social environment. The report, “Reforming Juvenile Justice: A Developmental Approach,” highlights evidence that indicates that during adolescence the brain is still immature; adolescents are less able to regulate their behavior, they are more sensitive to external influences (such as peer pressure and immediate reward), and they show less ability to make judgments and decisions that require future orientation. Thus, accountability practices should not be carried over from criminal courts (which are designed for adult offenders) to juvenile courts.

The report, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, finds that our current juvenile justice system, which relies heavily on confinement (much like the criminal justice system), routinely deprives youth of three conditions that are critically important to healthy adolescent development: active involvement by a parent figure, peer groups that value positive socialization and academic success, and activities that contribute to decision-making and critical-thinking abilities. In particular, confinement (or “serving time”) is not needed to assure that juveniles are held accountable, and in fact should be used only in rare circumstances, such as when a youth poses a high risk of harming others.

Instead, juvenile justice systems should put more emphasis on encouraging offender accountability through restorative justice, engaging in community service, and helping youths take responsibility and make amends for their actions. Juvenile justice systems should help prevent reoffending through structured risk and needs assessments and using interventions rooted in knowledge about adolescent development.

The report concludes that changes are needed if the juvenile justice system is to meet its aims of holding adolescents accountable, preventing reoffending, and treating them fairly. In particular state and tribal governments should establish task forces or commissions to assess their current juvenile justice systems, and align laws, policies and practices with evolving knowledge around adolescent development and evidence-based programs. These groups should intensify effort and eliminate any policies that target or disadvantage minorities, which are overrepresented at every stage of the juvenile justice system.

To read the full report, please visit http://sites.nationalacademies.org/DBASSE/CLAJ/Reforming_Juvenile_Justice/index.htm#.Ubs6zOfqnTq


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

Finding the law: Juvenile Justice in the U.S. Code

A collection of general and permanent laws relating to juvenile justice, passed by the United States Congress, are organized by subject matter arrangements in the United States Code (U.S.C.; this label examines juvenile justice topics), to make them easy to use (usually, organized by legal areas into Titles, Chapters and Sections). The platform provides introductory material to the U.S. Code, and cross references to case law. View the U.S. Code’s table of contents here.


Further Reading

Juvenile Justice: 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. This part provides references, in relation to Juvenile Justice, to the legislative process, the federal judiciary, and the primary sources of federal law (cases, statutes, and regulations).

Federal primary materials about Juvenile Justice 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 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 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 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. Finding these decisions can be challenging. In many cases, researchers about Juvenile Justice 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 when formerly requested by a designated government officer):

Tools and Forms

Law in Other Regions

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