Ask Warnken: Juvenile Jurisdiction v. Adult Criminal Jurisdiction

by Professor Byron L. Warnken on January 12, 2011

At common law, in England, people were considered adults, and were held accountable for their criminal acts, at age 14.  If the person was less than age 14, but was over age 7, that person could be held accountable, as an adult, on a case-by-case basis.  At common law, there was no criminal culpability for someone under age 7.

In this country, every jurisdiction has a juvenile justice system.  Under the approach of juvenile justice, a juvenile is considered too young to be criminally responsible for his or her conduct.  A juvenile who commits an act that would have been criminal, if an adult, is merely adjudicated delinquent and does get a criminal record and cannot be sentenced as a criminal.  If a juvenile is found delinquent in a juvenile delinquency proceeding, the juvenile master (who is like a judge) usually places the juvenile under the supervision of an adult, e.g., a parent or guardian.

A half century ago, most juvenile justice systems were pretty straight forward.  In the 1950’s and 1960’s, as a society, we were more sensitive to juveniles than the common law had been.  In this country, generally, people who were at least 18 years old were adults, and people who were under age 18 were juveniles.

Then, in the 1960’s and 1970’s, our society began to change.  Juveniles became more independent – physically free, more financial resources, more of an attitude against authority – at an ever-increasingly younger age.  It reached a point that a majority of the crime in this country was being committed by people under the age of 18.  Legislatures started making the age of criminal capacity be younger and younger, particularly for more serious offenses.

In Maryland, for people under age 18, generally, (1) those facing a potential life sentence become adults at age 14 (first degree murder, first degree rape, and first degree sexual offense); (2) those accused of serious crimes against persons become adults at age 16 (kidnapping, second degree murder, voluntary manslaughter, second degree rape, second and third degree sex offense, robbery with a dangerous weapon, handgun offenses, carjacking, and first degree assault); and (3) everyone else becomes an adult at age 18.

In Maryland, for people under age 18 who are accused of criminal conduct, there is a two-step process for determining whether jurisdiction will be in adult criminal court or whether it will be in juvenile court.  The first step of the two-step process does not consider the facts of the case and does not consider the background of alleged assailant.  Instead, the first step mechanically determines which court – juvenile court or criminal court – obtains jurisdiction.  This issue is resolved by examining the following three documents – the jurisdictional statute, the charging document, and the juvenile’s birth certificate.

The second step of the two-step process, determines where jurisdiction ends.  Thus, once it has been determined, during the first step, whether the adult criminal court or the juvenile court will presumptively get jurisdiction, the second step determines whether jurisdiction will remain with that court that had it first or whether jurisdiction will go to other court.  The second step examines the facts of the case and the background of the accused person.

In Maryland, assume that, at the first step, the juvenile court has jurisdiction.  If so, the juvenile court may waive its jurisdiction for any person who has reached at least age 15.  That means that, if a juvenile is changed with a crime for which the person becomes an adult at age 18, the prosecutor may file a petition, asking the juvenile court to waive its jurisdiction and to treat this person as an adult.  Similarly, in Maryland, assume that, at the first step, the adult criminal court has jurisdiction.  If so, the adult criminal court may waive its jurisdiction, which is referred to as “transfer” of jurisdiction or “reverse waiver” of jurisdiction.

When determining either waiver of juvenile jurisdiction, or transfer to juvenile jurisdiction, the court – either adult criminal court or juvenile court – must balance the interests of the juvenile and the interests of society, considering (1) the age of the juvenile, (2) the mental and physical condition of the juvenile, (3) the amenability of the juvenile to juvenile treatment, (4) the nature of the offense and the juvenile’s participation, and (5) the public safety.  Usually, factor (3) is the most important factor.  Ultimately, the court must consider public safety, accountability of the system to the victim, and rehabilitation of the juvenile offender.

Assuming the juvenile is in juvenile court, if the juvenile is found to be delinquent, the juvenile court must determine whether the juvenile needs guidance, treatment, and/or rehabilitation.  The juvenile court then conducts a disposition hearing, usually resulting in probation, supervision, rehabilitation, drug and/or alcohol counseling, work, civil fines and/or costs, commitment to the Department of Health & Mental Hygiene, and/or detention for rehabilitation.

In juvenile court, there is no right to a jury trial.  A juvenile may remain under the jurisdiction of the juvenile court system for three years, which may be as long as age 21.  Parents may be required to accept the consequences for the acts committed by their children and may be required to make restitution, to pay for the child’s support, and/or to pay a fine up to $2,500 for contributing to juvenile delinquency.

See also:  Maryland Juvenile Cases

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