In the event that your child is involved in a situation that warrants guidance through the Juvenile Delinquency System – you need answers. You, as the guardian need to be informed of what to expect and the language involved. High Swartz juvenile lawyer, Chelsey A. Christiansen has compiled a list of frequently asked questions she sees most often in Pennsylvania cases.

What is Juvenile Law?

Juvenile law encompasses two systems – the juvenile dependency and juvenile delinquency systems. The juvenile dependency system, generally, addresses children whose parents are unable to provide proper care. The below questions focus on the juvenile delinquency system and present a general overview of the delinquency system. Here are answers some of the most common questions we see as juvenile lawyers.

What is Juvenile Delinquency?

Juvenile Delinquency can be defined as unlawful acts conducted by minors. The juvenile delinquency system in PA addresses children who engage in behaviors which would be criminal if committed by adults.

Is Juvenile Court Considered Criminal Court for Kids?

No. The PA juvenile delinquency system is established instead of criminal court for children and is premised on the belief that while misbehavior requires consequences, children, based on their developmental needs, should be rehabilitated rather than punished for engaging in conduct that would be considered criminal if committed by an adult.

Juveniles do not commit crimes and they are not convicted of crimes. Instead, juveniles are adjudicated (judged or determined to be) delinquent.

What Does It Mean to Be a Delinquent Child?

A “delinquent child” is defined by statute as “a child ten years of age or older (up to age 18) whom the court has found to have committed a delinquent act and is in need of treatment, supervision or rehabilitation.”

What is considered a Delinquent Act in PA?

Generally, delinquent acts are those acts which if committed by an adult would be a crime. Certain acts, such as murder, are considered so heinous that they are excluded by PA statute as delinquent acts. In these limited circumstances, criminal charges can be instituted against a juvenile in the adult criminal system.

If my child commits a delinquent act, will he/she/they be adjudicated delinquent?

It depends. The juvenile system is designed to meet the child’s treatment, supervisory and/or rehabilitative needs by the least restrictive means. Ideally, there is a correlation between the child’s needs and the nature of the delinquent act.

For example, a child who commits an act which would be defined as burglary if committed by an adult would generally be considered to have greater treatment, supervisory and rehabilitative needs compared to a child who commits an act which would be defined as misdemeanor disorderly conduct.

If your child has committed a less serious offense, there is a chance he or she will qualify for a diversion program. This is an intervention strategy that redirects delinquent children away from formal processing in the juvenile justice system.

What Happens if My Child is a First-Time Offender?

Generally, diversion programs are offered to first-time offenders who commit less serious offenses and do not have significant treatment, supervision or rehabilitative needs. The child must be admitted into a diversion program prior to formal adjudication of delinquency, as the purpose of the program is to avoid the formal delinquency adjudication.

How Soon Does My Child Need a Juvenile Lawyer?

The juvenile delinquency system is designed to move quickly and efficiently; thus, it is imperative that you contact a juvenile defense lawyer for your child as soon as possible to explore whether your child may qualify for any diversion programs.

What Needs to be Proven to find a Child is Delinquent?

An adjudication of delinquency is a two-part finding. First, a judge must determine that the child committed a delinquent act. Second, the court must find that the child is in need of treatment, supervision or rehabilitation.
In order to determine whether the child should be adjudicated delinquent, the Court will hold an adjudicatory hearing. While the child has a right to a trial, as in criminal court, juvenile court is intended to be less adversarial than adult criminal court.

What Happens at a Delinquency Hearing?

The adjudicatory hearing is the hearing at which the court determines whether the child has committed a delinquent act and is in need of treatment, supervision, and rehabilitation. A juvenile has the option to have a contested hearing or may elect to admit to the delinquent act. Juveniles do not enter guilty pleas; instead, a juvenile may enter an admission to a delinquency act, thereby waiving certain rights. The court, after a hearing, or after receipt of the juvenile’s admission, will determine whether to adjudicate the child delinquent.

What Happens If My Child is Found Delinquent in Court?

Once the court enters an adjudication of delinquency, the matter moves forward to determine what services must go in place to address the juvenile’s needs. Juveniles do not receive a “sentence” as adult criminal defendants do. Instead, juveniles receive a disposition (the court’s final ruling on consequences). After an adjudication hearing, the court will schedule a disposition hearing to determine the best way to meet the child’s treatment, supervision and rehabilitative needs assigning the least restrictive requirements. Disposition typically involves placement on juvenile probation and participation in treatment and rehabilitative programs. Disposition can involve out-of-home placement.

What are the consequences of an adjudication of delinquency?

If your child is adjudicated delinquent, he/she/they will also be assessed a disposition. Every child’s disposition will be different, as the purpose of disposition is to meet the specific child’s treatment, supervision, and rehabilitative needs.

What Does a Disposition Entail?

Typically, disposition requires participation in treatment programs as well as the imposition of conditions regarding school attendance, curfew and abstention from delinquent behaviors, including drug use. Disposition can require payment of restitution or other costs and fines. Disposition can also require out-of-home placement, based on the child’s needs.

A key distinction between a juvenile disposition and an adult criminal sentence is that there is no time parameter in juvenile court, aside from the jurisdictional limit of the juvenile court. Juvenile court can supervise a child until his/her/their twenty-first birthday. A child will remain on probation and under the supervision of the juvenile court until it is agreed by juvenile probation, the district attorney, the juvenile lawyer, and the court that the child’s needs have been met and the child has satisfied all conditions of disposition.

How Long Will My Child Be On Probation?

The first question typically asked by juveniles and their families is “how long will my child on probation?” The only absolute answer is no later than his/her/their twenty-first birthday. Thus, it is possible for a child to enter the juvenile system at age 13 and remain on probation for up to 8 years if the child fails to adequately participate in the dispositional programming or engage in the treatment and rehabilitative processes. There is no standard time-frame for probation, as every disposition is tailored to the child.

Do I Need to Notify My Child’s School?

If adjudicated delinquent, juvenile probation is required to notify the child’s school of the delinquent act(s) committed by the child, a brief description of the acts, and the child’s disposition. Certain juvenile matters are not sealed and are available for public information.

What are Some Other Consequences My Child Might Face?

A delinquency adjudication may result in several other collateral consequences. Certain delinquent acts require a driver’s license suspension, even if the child has yet to obtain his/her/their license. Juveniles adjudicated of certain sex crimes may have to register as a sex-offender.

Will My Child’s Record Be Expunged when He/She/They Turn 18?

It’s important to understand that juvenile records are not automatically expunged or destroyed. It is a very common misconception that juvenile records automatically expire once the child turns 18. There is a process to obtain a juvenile record expungement in Pennsylvania, and unless and until the process is completed and approved by a judge, the juvenile record is still accessible. When discussing a juvenile matter with an attorney, it is critical to assess what collateral consequences may be facing the child.

My child got in trouble and the police are involved – What Do I Do Next?

  1. Contact a Juvenile lawyer. Children in the juvenile delinquency system have a right to counsel and that right should be asserted as early as possible.
  2. Exercise caution in encouraging or forcing your child to admit wrongdoing to the police or to waive his/her/their rights. A knowing and voluntary admission to the police can be admissible evidence at a later hearing. Your child will not be lying if he/she/they wait to talk to an advisor.
  3. Understand that your child is likely more confused than you are regarding this process and needs an advocate.

High Swartz Juvenile lawyer, Chelsey Christiansen, advocates for children who are involved in the juvenile delinquency system. If you feel your child’s situation meets any of the above criteria noted in the FAQs, contact Chelsey and the Family Law Attorneys at High Swartz at 610.275.0700 or email Chelsey at cchristiansen@highswartz.com.

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