When Can a Child Be Charged as an Adult?

child hands in cuffs holding prison bars

When children are accused of crimes, they usually go to trial in juvenile courts. Under certain circumstances, however, children under age 18 can be tried in adult courts. The rules for when a child can be charged as an adult vary by state. In most states, adult courts do not try children under 16, but some states try minors as young as 13, 12, or 10 in adult courts.

For very serious crimes, such as rape and murder, children of any age may be tried as adults.

Who Decides to Try Children as Adults?

Most states have judicial waiver laws that allow juvenile courts to waive jurisdiction on a case-by-case basis. The decision to try children as adults is usually at the discretion of the judge. For certain crimes in some states, a judicial waiver is mandatory, meaning minors must be tried as adults.

In New York, for example, some cases always fall within the adult criminal justice system due to statutory exclusion laws. Murder charges and certain person offenses are exempt from juvenile court jurisdiction for minors aged 13 or older, and certain property and weapon offenses are exempt for minors aged 14 and older.

What Is the Difference Between the Juvenile Justice System and the Criminal Justice System?

The juvenile justice system was established because lawmakers recognized scientific research showing key developmental differences between youth and adults. Because young people have less impulse control and more susceptibility to peer pressure and other societal forces, the consequences for crimes are usually less severe in juvenile court. Additionally, the juvenile justice system is more focused on rehabilitation than the criminal justice system because it recognizes that children cannot develop in a healthy way behind bars.

Notably, the juvenile justice system also separates incarcerated minors from incarcerated adults, protecting them from the heightened risk of physical assault, sexual abuse, and suicide they would face in jail or prison.

Are There Any Benefits to Being Tried in Criminal Court?

Youth tried in adult criminal courts will gain the right to a trial by jury, and adult juries may be more sympathetic to minors. Still, the cons of being tried in criminal court far outweigh the pros.

In adult criminal courts, minors are subject to more severe sentences, lack many of the rehabilitative programs available in juvenile court, must serve sentences in adult jail or prison (as opposed to juvenile detention centers), and face more stigma for their convictions. Further, the records in criminal court are rarely sealed, and juvenile records are typically more private.

For all the reasons above, attorneys with young clients usually fight to remain in juvenile court.

New York’s Raise the Age Legislation

New York recently made it easier for all minors under age 18 to be tried outside of adult criminal court. The state’s Raise the Age (RTA) legislation establishes special rules for minors in different age groups. For instance, children between ages 7 and 15 who commit crimes are considered Juvenile Delinquents and their cases are decided in family courts. Sixteen and 17-year-olds charged with misdemeanors are also considered Juvenile Delinquents.

If a 13, 14, or 15-year-old commits a very serious felony, they will become a Juvenile Offender. Juvenile Offenders can be tried in adult courts, but they are subject to different penalties than adults. The penalties for Juvenile Offenders are more serious than those for Juvenile Delinquents.

Minors ages 16 and 17 become Adolescent Offenders when charged with felonies. All minors charged with traffic offenses are tried in criminal court. This age-based scale of classification and penalty spares younger children from more severe consequences and helps ensure that everyone is being punished appropriately.

For information about the legal process under New York’s RTA laws, visit the NYC Administration for Children’s Services website.

Does My Child Need a Lawyer?

Yes. Whether your child is facing charges in family court, juvenile court, or criminal court, you should hire a local attorney for your family.

At Foley Griffin, we have been serving New York families since 1997. We have over 75 years of combined experience and are familiar with the state’s criminal justice system, juvenile justice system, and laws old and new.

Our practice is based on integrity, and we treat every client with dignity and respect – no matter their age and no matter the charges.

If your child has been charged with a crime, we encourage you to call us at (888) 966-8480 or contact us online, so we can discuss your family’s rights and legal options during a free, confidential consultation.

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