Defense of Juvenile Clients Requires Navigating a Complex System

Pennsylvania's juvenile justice system can produce a very disorienting and disconcerting experience. Many elements of it are far different from the more commonly understood procedures of criminal law.

But some elements are the same: A child's freedom can be at stake, and an attorney with experience navigating the system should represent this young person who is just getting his or her start in life.

In focusing my practice on criminal law, family law and civil litigation, I've represented many young clients and their families who have had the unfortunate and unwelcome experience of being introduced to Pennsylvania's juvenile justice system.

The following is a closer look at an often misunderstood system.

The hidden world of juvenile justice

Pennsylvania's juvenile justice system differs from the state's criminal law system in many fundamental ways.

The first difference is jurisdictional: Generally, it is limited to dealing with individuals whose alleged offenses occur between the ages of 10 and 18. However, once a child is placed in the system, supervision may continue until age 21.

There are no jury trials in juvenile court. The only way an offense allegedly committed by someone under 18 is heard by a jury is if the case is transferred from juvenile court to "adult court," i.e., the criminal justice system.

Most juvenile court hearings are closed to the public. They are conducted by judges or hearing masters, typically attorneys appointed to this role.

In juvenile court, violations of the crimes code are not considered crimes. Rather, they are referred to as "delinquent acts." As a result, juveniles are found to be delinquent instead of guilty. Similarly, juveniles are not sentenced, but dispositions are issued.

Make no mistake, however. Pennsylvania's juvenile justice system has teeth.  A young person found delinquent in the system can be issued a disposition that deprives him of his freedom and removes him from the custody of his parents while the disposition continues. Once in the juvenile system, a young person can remain in some type of court placement or on parole until his or her 21st birthday.

Founding principles

The mission of the juvenile justice system, as stated in Pennsylvania's Juvenile Act, reads: " ... to provide for children committing delinquent acts programs of supervision, care and rehabilitation which provide balanced attention to the protection of the community, the imposition of accountability for offenses committed and the development of competencies to enable children to become responsible and productive members of the community."

To achieve this, Pennsylvania has adopted the philosophy of Balanced and Restorative Justice, or BARJ. According to the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency, Balanced and Restorative Justice is rooted in the following principles:

  • Community protection - Citizens of Pennsylvania have a right to safe and secure communities.
  • Accountability - In Pennsylvania, when a crime is committed by a juvenile, an obligation to the victim and the community is incurred.
  • Competency development - Juveniles who come into the jurisdiction of the juvenile justice system should leave the system more capable of being responsible and productive members of their communities.
  • Individualization - Each case referred to the juvenile justice system presents unique circumstances, and the response by the system must therefore be individualized and based on an assessment of all relevant information and factors.

    Note that "punishment" is not part of the mission, and all the goals sound lofty and noble. But how does it work in practice?

Reality vs. rhetoric

When a juvenile is arrested, one of two things will happen: Police may release the juvenile to the custody of a parent until a meeting with someone from the Juvenile Probation Office, or police may contact the office directly and request that the child be detained until court.

If the juvenile is released at the time of arrest, police will forward a report to the Juvenile Probation Office. The intake officer will review the case and schedule a meeting with the juvenile and the parents about the case.

Many counties have diversionary programs that allow the child to be spared formal court action. But a child and his or her family need an experienced legal representative familiar with the system and its players and procedures in order to know all the options available.

Should the juvenile be detained after the arrest, a review of the detention placement (typically to a juvenile facility) must take place within 72 hours. After this review, detention may be continued, discontinued or modified.

If the juvenile is accused of a major offense, such as murder, Pennsylvania requires him or her to be charged as an adult and detained in a county jail. The juvenile's attorney needs to do everything possible to have the case transferred back to the juvenile system, where punishment is only part of the mission and rehabilitation is the goal.
This is but another example of the need for experienced legal representation when navigating Pennsylvania's juvenile justice system.

Read more: The Pennsylvania Juvenile Court Judges' Commission has developed a document entitled A Family Guide to Pennsylvania's Juvenile Justice System.

To learn more about how attorney Robert B. MacIntyre can help you, call him at 717-774-1357 or email him at bmacintyre@hynumpc.com.