Juvenile law refers specifically to aspects of criminal law as it applies to minors – persons under the age of majority. In most states, this includes anyone under the age of 18. In 13 states, however, for specific categories of offenses, juvenile courts may only handle those under the age of 17. In New York and North Carolina, delinquency offenses only include those under 16.
Some states also have a lower limit on age, usually between 7 and 10 years old. Below those ages, the children are considered to be incapable of culpability, and cases are often built against parents or guardians instead.
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There are also many statutory exclusions, where certain crimes, even when committed by juveniles, are viewed as rising to a level of seriousness that requires the attention of the regular criminal justice system. Prosecutors can also apply for waivers to try juveniles as an adult based on the particular circumstances, such as with repeat offenders. In an extremely unusual 2009 case in Pennsylvania, an 11-year-old was originally tried as an adult with a possibility of a life sentence for the murder of a pregnant woman.
Paralegals planning to specialize in juvenile criminal law have to balance compassion with responsibility. The juvenile justice system is an attempt to recognize that, while juveniles bear some measure of responsibility for their actions and must be dealt with when they break the law, society, too, bears a responsibility to shape and rehabilitate kids who have not yet reached full maturity.
Juvenile Law Paralegals Consider the Good of the Child as Well as Society
Juvenile court differs in a number of ways from regular criminal court. Under the doctrine of parens patriae, the courts effectively assume legal protection of minors. This creates certain obligations to juvenile defendants that don’t exist in adult cases, but also relieves juveniles of many rights that adults might have.
Defendants are typically judged either delinquent or not delinquent, rather than guilty or not, reflecting a diminished degree of personal responsibility for their actions. They are viewed as being detained rather than arrested, with fewer rights than adults held in public custody. Sentences tend to focus more on rehabilitation than punishment, and may not run past the defendants 21st birthday. Juvenile courts are considered civil, rather than criminal, courts, despite hearing cases that would be considered criminal with adult defendants.
There is a much greater emphasis on confidentiality in juvenile matters. Paralegals have to conduct their trial preparations with a view toward protecting the records of the case. Unlike those in adult trials, court records in juvenile cases are sealed, and may be expunged completely on the defendants 18th birthday.
Juvenile Delinquency Addresses Common Criminal Proceedings
Although minors do not enjoy the same rights as adult defendants, they still get their day in court. A juvenile criminal proceeding mirrors adult criminal trials in some respects. A prosecutorial team of lawyers and paralegals will assemble evidence, build a case, and argue it before a judge. The accused is entitled to representation, which will also be conducted by a legal team similar to adult court. Witnesses are called and evidence is presented, although standards may be lower than in adult trials.
Paralegals who work in juvenile prosecution often draft the petition that serves as both charging document and notification to the minor’s family of impending court proceedings.
But paralegals have to be careful of the procedural differences in juvenile court. Jury trials are not allowed, eliminating several significant defensive strategies. The purpose of the trial is less punitive in nature; judges attempt to come to a decision that adheres to the principle of least detrimental punishment to the defendant. The focus is more on rehabilitation than punishment.
Juvenile Status Crimes Are All About Age
Some juvenile crimes are solely considered crimes based on the age of the offender, rather than the act itself. These so-called status offenses include:
- Underage drinking
- Skipping school
- Violating curfew laws
- Underage smoking
None of the underlying actions are themselves offensive to society, but are not deemed appropriate for juveniles.
These types of offenses are taken seriously but do not typically rise to the level of formal prosecution. Instead, youth who have been arrested for status offenses are typically placed in pre-trial diversion programs that attempt counseling or treatment rather than punishment. A paralegal working on such cases might be responsible for finding and recommending appropriate diversion programs for the offender, and coordinating their entry into those programs when approved.
Juvenile Dependency Cases Focus on Protection
Many juvenile court systems also handle cases dealing with child abuse and neglect. These are known as dependency cases, and they often go hand-in-hand with conventional criminal cases that are prosecuted in the regular court system.
These cases may be the worst aspect of paralegal work in juvenile law, with stomach-turning incidents investigated in excruciating detail. Yet it is also among the most vital of work, protecting the most innocent of victims.
Paralegals will work with police and social workers to gather evidence, sometimes assisting in questioning the victim. Unlike adult witnesses, obtaining effective, admissible statements from children is a fraught matter that takes considerable expertise—expert psychologists are often used who take care to avoid implanting suggestions with the child. A paralegal working to build a strong case around such testimony has to carefully monitor the proceedings to ensure the evidence is legitimate.
The testimony can be used in the criminal trial of an adult defendant, but the dependency case will be focused on the child. The proceedings provide a legal basis for removing the child from the environment in which the abuses are occurring, placing them either in foster care or with a family member who can be responsible for them. Paralegals often serve as guardians ad litem, a role that represents the child’s interest in both court systems.
Paralegals work on both sides of all of these types of proceedings. Juvenile prosecution units use paralegals to help manage their cases, where they perform tasks such as:
- Reviewing police reports for evidence to recommend for or against filing charges.
- Coordinating summons for defendants and appearances of those already in custody.
- Screening cases for referrals out to diversion programs or to other courts.
- Preparing motions, pleadings, charges, and transport orders.
- Interviewing and preparing witnesses for testimony at trial.
Becoming a Juvenile Law Paralegal
There is often a lot of overlap between juvenile and family law and many paralegals come into juvenile law work from family law practices. In fact, family law practices might have staff who specialize in juvenile cases.
Work as a guardian ad litem is another way to gain experience in the juvenile justice system. In many cases, these are pro bono positions, volunteer work that can be done by paralegals or even individuals outside the legal profession entirely. A guardian ad litem represents the interests of the juvenile in legal matters which typically focus exclusively on prosecution and defense, or the litigants in a civil case.
Some college paralegal degree programs offer juvenile law specialty course tracks. These include all the typical paralegal degree courses but also additional classes specific to juvenile, family, and criminal law. Others provide the same basic course-work in a post-degree certificate format.
A specialty certification from the NALS, the association for legal professionals, in juvenile law will also burnish your resume. NALS is the only major paralegal certification provider that offers a specific course in juvenile law. However, NALA, the National Association of Legal Assistants, does have a series of specialty certifications covering different aspects of family law, several of which may have bearing on juvenile justice practice, and specifically the certificate focused on custody, support, and visitation. NALS has a family law certification available as well.