The Child Development Institute explains that a child really does not have the capacity to reason as an adult until they reach about 15 years of age. This means that juveniles who commit offenses may not fully understand the consequences of those actions as they engage in illegal or harmful activity. For this reason, the government of the United States deals with juvenile criminals within the juvenile justice system, which is separate from the adult justice system and which is designed to distribute punishments that take a juvenile’s level of development into account.


The juvenile justice system is a section of the judicial branch of government that deals only with juvenile criminals and their victims. The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) defines a juvenile as any youth who is at or below the upper age of jurisdiction in a state. Based on state laws, this translates to those who are under the age of 18. Judges, police, lawyers/child advocates, social workers, detention officers, and community program leaders and volunteers all are part of this system.

Age of Jurisdiction

OJJDP explains that, in most states, the upper age of jurisdiction (i.e., the maximum age at which a court has authority) for juveniles is 17. However, some states such as Missouri place the upper age of jurisdiction as low as 15. Furthermore, some states such as West Virginia have no minimum age for trying a person as an adult. This means that more individuals may go through the adult system instead of the juvenile system. All states reserve the right to make exceptions to their age specifications based on the nature of the offense—the more serious the crime, the more likely the state is to prosecute the juvenile in adult court. Changes to age statutes since 1980 reflects the attempt of the juvenile justice system to handle the increasing number and more serious nature of juvenile offenses.


OJJDP states that about 30 percent of juvenile offenders are referred to alternative programs instead of going through the court. Offenders receive referral primarily at the discretion of arresting police officers, but they also receive referral from parents or other family members. This is because members of the juvenile justice system believe that youth, because of their age, need guidance and resources just as much as they need discipline in order to prevent future offenses.

Basic Process

Procedures for trying a juvenile vary by state, according to OJJDP. However, all states go through the same basic process. This process includes an arrest or referral, filing of charges, informal processing of the juvenile, formal processing of the juvenile, adjudication, and entry of the juvenile into placement, aftercare or probation programs or terms.

Number of Offenders

Based on 2008 data from OJJDP, roughly 70 million individuals in the American population are juveniles, which equates to about 25 percent of the total U.S. population. Of this percentage, 2.11 million individuals were arrested. Since arrests do not include the number of individuals who become involved with the juvenile justice system through non-law enforcement referral, the total number of individuals the juvenile justice system probably is higher.