The juvenile justice system is a set of law enforcement and judicial procedures designed to deal with juvenile offenders. Juvenile justice systems differ from country to country, but typically include a combination of police, juvenile courts, and juvenile correctional facilities. In this article, we’ll provide a comprehensive overview of the juvenile system and discuss its various components in this article.

What Is the Juvenile Justice System?

The juvenile justice system is a network of agencies and institutions tasked with monitoring, assisting, and combating juvenile delinquency. The system in the United States is made up of federal, state, and local agencies, as well as private facilities. Although the federal government funds juvenile justice programs, each state has its own system.

The juvenile justice system's primary goals are to prevent juvenile crime and rehabilitate young offenders. To that end, the system employs a variety of strategies, including diversion, probation, and detention. For instance, juvenile offenders can avoid formal charges by participating in community-based alternatives to incarceration through diversion programs. 

Probation, on the other hand, is the part of the juvenile justice system process in which offenders are required to follow certain rules, such as attending school or participating in treatment programs, while being monitored by a probation officer. And for juvenile offenders who are deemed too dangerous to be released into the community, detention is used as a last resort.

In recent years, the juvenile justice system has come under fire for failing to effectively rehabilitate young offenders. According to studies, incarcerated juveniles are more likely to commit crimes as adults than those who are not. As a result, there is a growing movement to reform the juvenile justice system to emphasize rehabilitation rather than punishment. 

An Overview of the Juvenile Justice System

Juvenile courts currently handle approximately 423,000 delinquency cases per year, despite the overall rate of delinquency having steadily declined over the past few years. In 2018, the percentage of delinquent cases that were ruled on and closed was 52%, or 220,000 total cases.

Data gathered over the years also reveals the following:

  • Statistics show that female juvenile offenders are less likely than male offenders to be petitioned, adjudicated, detained, or committed to an institution for most offense categories.
  • Teens of color, especially Black and Brown youth, are more likely to be detained and committed than their white, non-Hispanic counterparts.
  • More than half of the young people who are committed to residential juvenile justice facilities are performing academically below the grade level expected of them.
  • Teenage and young adult male inmates with above-average school performance are significantly less likely to reoffend once they leave the correctional facility than their counterparts with lower academic performance.
  • Approximately 70% of youth involved in the juvenile criminal justice system have a diagnosable mental health disorder, with nearly 30% of those experiencing severe mental health disorders.
  • Juvenile offenders often have a history of trauma, resulting in mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders that put them at risk of committing further criminal behavior.
  • Substance abuse is common among youth in the juvenile court system. Adolescents who commit more severe and persistent crimes are more likely to have elevated drug use and meet diagnostic criteria for a substance use disorder.

Despite the fact that a disproportionate number of juvenile delinquents struggle with mental health issues, relatively few are referred for treatment within correctional facilities.

How Does the Juvenile Justice System Work?

After a delinquent act has been committed, the juvenile justice process typically includes the following steps: refer­ral, diversion or intake, transfer or waiver, deten­tion, adju­di­ca­tion, dis­pos­i­tion, juve­nile cor­rec­tions, and aftercare or reentry.


A minor enters the juvenile justice system as a result of an arrest or referral. It’s not just the police who can refer people to the system; parents, alleged crime victims, and other members of the community can also make these recommendations.

Diversion or Intake

Once in the system, the young people go through an intake process to determine whether they should be diverted to another program or continue through the juvenile court system. 

Cases are evaluated by intake staff at the juvenile court, the probation agency, or the prosecutor's office to determine whether the matter should be processed formally in juvenile court, dismissed, or handled informally.

Transfer or Waiver

In some cases, juveniles accused of extremely serious crimes may be waived or transferred out of the juvenile justice system and tried as adults. While prosecutors in some jurisdictions have the authority to order transfers, in the vast majority of the country, a juvenile court judge decides whether or not to grant a transfer.


When a case is formally heard in juvenile court, the next decision is whether the juvenile should be detained until their adjudication hearing or allowed to remain at home until the process begins. Pretrial detention is typically only ordered by a juvenile court judge in states where the minor is considered a danger to society or a flight risk.


At this point, the young person may be adjudicated a delinquent, which is roughly equivalent to a conviction in a criminal court. It's also possible that the charges against the minor will be dropped or that the minor will be found to be innocent. 

Juvenile courts are similar to the adult justice system in that the vast majority of cases are not contested in criminal court. In juvenile justice proceedings, however, jury trials are not permitted.

Many juvenile cases are settled through plea bargains, where the accused pleads guilty to a lesser charge, or through deferred prosecution under the terms of a consent decree or a similar agreement.


In the juvenile court process, once a juvenile is found to be delinquent, a dispositional hearing is held. This functions similarly to a sentencing hearing in an adult court. Typical­ly, a pro­ba­tion offi­cer will investigate the situation, speak with the minor in question, and come up with a suggested course of action before the hearing.

The disposition may include juvenile corrections, such as probation or time in a juvenile detention center.

Juvenile Corrections

Juveniles who have been found guilty of delinquency can receive either residential placement or  community supervision, also known as probation.

Probation is by far the most common disposition for juvenile offenders. When a juvenile is on probation, they are allowed to live at home with the supervision of a probation officer and may be required to follow certain rules, perform community service, participate in mandatory treatment activities, or pay restitution.

Juvenile detention centers can be run by states, while others are run by local governments, non-profit organizations, or private businesses. Some group homes and residential treatment centers are similar to child welfare and mental health institutions, while others are large and designed to closely mirror adult prisons.

Aftercare or Reentry

The final phase of the process may be a period of after­care, where the young per­son is super­vised and sup­port­ed dur­ing their tran­si­tion back into the community. Aftercare services are also typically provided to help young people successfully reenter society after they have completed their sentence. 

History of the Juvenile Justice System

The juvenile justice system in the United States has a long and complicated history, and it has undergone numerous changes since its inception in the late 19th century. 

The first juvenile court was established in Chicago in 1899, and it was followed by other courts in cities across the country. In contrast to the punitive approach used for adults, these juvenile courts were designed to provide a rehabilitative approach ideal for juvenile offenders.

A series of Supreme Court decisions started highlighting young offenders' rights and outlawing sentences like the death penalty and life without parole for crimes committed during adolescence, as well as new laws in many states to raise the maximum age of the juvenile court's jurisdiction. This was because they saw clear benefits of keeping youth out of the adult criminal justice system.

The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974 was reauthorized and substantially amended by the Juvenile Justice Reform Act of 2018, which was recently signed into law.

Today, the juvenile system is still evolving as legislators and judges try to figure out how to best balance public safety and the needs of juvenile offenders. While there is no perfect solution, it is clear that the juvenile justice system is critical to our society and that juvenile justice policy needs to be improved.

Juvenile vs Adult Justice System

The juvenile system in the United States is distinct from the adult criminal justice system. One significant distinction is that the juvenile justice system is designed to be more rehabilitation-focused, whereas the criminal justice system is more punishment-focused.

This means that juveniles who are found guilty of crimes are typically sent to juvenile detention facilities, where they can receive counseling and other services to help them change the course of their lives. Adults convicted of crimes, on the other hand, are typically sent to prison, where they may have few opportunities for rehabilitation.

Another significant difference when discussing the juvenile justice system vs the criminal justice system is that a juvenile charged with a crime has far stronger legal protections than an adult charged and tried in an adult criminal court. For example, juveniles cannot be tried as adults in juvenile courts and cannot be sentenced to death.

Finally, juvenile records are typically sealed, whereas the records of adults charged with crimes are open to the public. This allows juveniles to move on with their lives more easily after leaving the juvenile justice system, while adults frequently have to deal with the long-term consequences of having a criminal record.

Issues with the Juvenile Justice System

The juvenile justice system has evolved over time in response to societal changes and our understanding of adolescent development. Today, it is widely acknowledged that young people are still developing emotionally and cognitively, and that they are less likely than adults to comprehend the consequences of their actions.

As a result, the juvenile justice system now prioritizes rehabilitation over punishment and offers a variety of services to assist young people in getting back on track. The system, however, still has some significant flaws.

Minority youth, for example, are overrepresented at every stage of the process, from arrest to criminal court, detention, and parole. Furthermore, many incarcerated young people have mental health issues or have experienced trauma, but they do not receive adequate treatment while in custody, which is one of the biggest problems with the juvenile justice system.

Consequently, many of them are released without the necessary resources to make a fresh start. Given these obstacles, it’s clear that much work remains to be done to ensure that the juvenile justice system is fair and effective.

There has been a general decline in the number of juvenile arrests since the mid-1990s across all racial categories. Despite the declines, the gap between the arrest rates of white and Black youth has widened in recent years. 

In 1995, for example, black youth were 2.1 times more likely than white youth to be arrested. In 2020, this proportion was 2.3, according to data compiled by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

Final Thoughts on the US Juvenile Justice System

While the juvenile justice system has changed significantly since its inception, the overarching goal of keeping children safe while also holding them accountable for juvenile delinquency has not.

Advocates and reformers have worked tirelessly to make the nation’s juvenile justice system the fairest and most effective it's ever been; the question is, is that enough? Although we have come a long way, we still have a long way to go before we have a truly just society in which everyone is treated fairly.