The Juvenile Justice System

Authored By: Carl Vinson Institute
Read this in:
Spanish / Español


Juvenile Justice

This document tells you the following:

  • What is the history of the juvenile court system in Georgia?
  • What kinds of cases go to the juvenile courts?
  • What is the process of being taken into custody?
  • What juvenile rights and protections are there?
  • What are the procedures for intake for a juvenile?
  • What detention decisions might be made?
  • What is a status offense?
  • What is an "unruly child"?
  • What procedure decisions might there be?
  • What are the two parts of formal hearing procedures?
  • How does a formal hearing for a juvenile differ from an adult trial?
  • What treatment choices does a judge have after hearing the evidence of the case?
  • What are designated felony offenses and their penalties?

The idea of treating juveniles differently from adults in a situation in which a criminal act occurs began to take form in the early 1800s. Before then everyone-regardless of age-was treated and jailed in the same way and in the same institutions.


The first juvenile court in the United States was established in Chicago in 1899. In 1906, the Georgia legislature established legal grounds for a chil-dren's court. The first juvenile court in Georgia was established in Fulton County in 1911. Today, every county in Georgia has a juvenile court.

Generally, juvenile court judges are appointed by the chief judge of the Superior Court of the circuit in which the courts are located. In small counties, a superior court judge will sometimes preside over the juvenile court. In this case, the judge functions in the dual capacity of superior court judge and juvenile court judge. In larger counties, associate judges are appointed by the chief judge of the juvenile court to assist in handling the large case loads.

Georgia juvenile courts are controlled by a 1971 law known as the juvenile code. The philosophy of the juvenile courts is to be protective of the child rather than punitive (aimed at punishment). The juvenile court is to do what is in the best interest of the child while considering the best interests of society.

Not everyone agrees with this way of treating children. Some people believe that the juvenile court is too soft on delinquents. They think more delinquents should be tried in adult courts. Others argue that children are not adults: they often go through a period of rebellion in which they do things they would not do if they were older. They say the juvenile court has worked satisfactorily. What do you think?


The juvenile court has jurisdiction over children under 17 years of age who are said to have committed a delinquent act or status offense. A delinquent act is one that would be a crime if it were committed by an adult. In contrast, a status offense is an act that would not be a crime if it were committed by an adult. Examples of status offenses are ungovernable behavior, being a runaway, and being truant (the behaviors listed in the table below are status offenses). The juvenile court also has jurisdiction over juveniles who commit traffic offenses. In addition, the court has jurisdiction over children aged 17 and younger who are considered to be abused, neglected, or deprived.

For youths who have been "sentenced" as juveniles, the court may retain supervision until they are 21. (Note that rather than actually being sentenced to punishment as adults are, juveniles are said to receive treatment with the goal of rehabilitation.) However, if a youth previously sentenced in juvenile court commits another offense after he or she is 17, the subsequent offense would be handled by an adult court.

The 1994 amendment to the Georgia Juvenile Court Code provides for the treatment of juvenile offenders charged with certain violent offenses as adults. It gives the superior court sole jurisdiction over any child alleged to have committed certain offenses, including murder, voluntary manslaughter, rape, aggravated sodomy, aggravated child molestation, aggravated sexual battery, and armed robbery committed with a firearm.

Before a juvenile is indicted as an adult, the district attorney may, after investigation and for "extraordinary cause," withdraw the case and submit it to the juvenile court. Also, following indictment, the superior court may, after investigation and for extraordinary case, transfer a case to the juvenile court. However, there are some capital cases that the superior court may not transfer, including cases involving murder, rape, and armed robbery committed with a firearm.

Children under 13 years of age are not believed to be capable of criminal intent. Therefore, even if they commit a capital offense, the case must be handled by the juvenile court.


A youth may be taken into custody if there are reasonable grounds to believe that he or she has committed a delinquent act or a status offense. A youth may also be taken into custody if he or she has been abused and/or neglected. Neither of these events is considered an arrest, so the youth can legally claim never to have been arrested. This claim is true as long as the youth's only contact with the criminal justice system is through the juvenile court.



Juveniles, like adults, have the right to remain silent when questioned about an alleged crime. They have the right to an attorney when they have been charged with a delinquent act or a status offense.

Although not required by Georgia law, it is desirable for parents, a legal guardian, or an attorney to be present when a youth is questioned by the police or anyone else. Further, the Georgia Supreme Court has indicated that parents should be present when a child waives his or her Fifth Amendment privileges.

However, the rules for determining whether a confession can be used against a defendant in court are stricter for juveniles than for adults in Georgia. A court considers whether the juvenile waived his or her rights knowingly and voluntarily. It takes into account factors such as the juvenile's age, education, and his or her understanding of the meaning of his or her rights. Interrogation methods and whether the juvenile was allowed to consult with an adult would also be considered.


The first step in the juvenile justice process is called intake. A youth taken into custody is turned over to an intake officer of the juvenile court. The intake officer immediately begins to investigate the case. Two important decisions must be made by the juvenile court within 72 hours. An intake officer must first find out whether there is enough evidence (that is, probable cause) to sup-port the charges made against the youth. If there clearly is not, the intake officer must dismiss the case. If there is enough evidence, the intake worker must decide whether to detain the youth until a detention hearing can be held.

Detention Decisions

Juveniles may be detained for various reasons. The main ones are to prevent them from running away or hurting themselves or others. Or a youth may have nowhere else to go. Maybe his or her parents or guardians are absent or unwilling to have the child return home.

Before making a decision about the detention, an intake officer must gather information by asking, What are the charges against the youth? Has he or she been in trouble with the law before? What is the situation at home and school? If detention is not considered necessary, the youth will be released to his or her parent(s) or guardian(s) until the hearing or adjustment of the case.

If the intake worker decides that the child should be detained, the parent(s) or guardian(s) must be notified. A detention hearing must be held within 72 hours of this detention decision. (For a delinquency charge, the detention hearing may be delayed if the 72-hour period ends on a weekend or holiday.) At this hearing, the judge decides two matters. First the judge considers whether it is in the best interest of the child and society for the case to proceed to a formal hearing. If so, a petition is filed. Then the judge must decide whether the child should be detained until the formal hearing. In Georgia, juveniles have the right to make bail if they are detained.

The facility in which the youth is detained depends on the offense. Those charged with delinquent acts (which are the same as adult crimes) are sent to one of the state's Regional Youth Detention Centers. Formerly, they might have been jailed in an adult facility for a delinquent offense. This form of detention was not seen as desirable and is no longer imposed except in certain situations.

As a result of the 1994 amendment to the juvenile code, certain juveniles may be placed in adult facilities. These juveniles are charged with offenses over which the superior court has sole jurisdiction. Also, public safety and protection must reasonably require their detentions in a jail. Furthermore, detention of a juvenile in an adult facility requires an order from superior court. The youths must be placed in a room separate from adults in order to prevent any physical contact between a child and an adult offender.

On the other hand, status offenders may not be kept in detention facilities for more than 72 hours (plus 48 additional hours if the juvenile court ap-proves). Offenders must then be moved to a shelter-care facility. These facilities do not have locks on the doors. They are places for nondelinquents to stay until arrangements can be made to return them to their homes. If the natural home is not a possibility, the child may be assigned to a group or foster home.

Procedure Decisions

Most children are not detained. After their release, a court worker continues the investigation. The juvenile court needs to know enough about the juvenile's background and current status (that is, whether the juvenile has a previous court record or record of being in trouble) to determine what is best for the child and society as a whole. There are several possible courses of action.

Release. If the intake officer finds that the evidence against the youth is not sufficient, the youth will be released from the court's jurisdiction.

Informal adjustment. The intake officer may decide to proceed with an informal adjustment. Informal adjustment is unique to the juvenile justice system. When the court proceeds with an informal adjustment, it does not hold a formal hearing but retains jurisdiction over the youth for three months. (The judge can extend this period for another three months.)

For there to be an informal adjustment, the youth must have admitted wrongdoing. Also, the youth and his parents must agree to the process. Generally, informal adjustments are used with first offenders of minor delinquent acts.

The purpose of informal adjustment is to improve the youth's behavior. To help ensure improved behavior, delinquent or unruly youths may be required to attend school on a regular basis. Counseling or special programs may be required. Furthermore, a juvenile may have to make restitution (that is, pay for any damages caused by their behavior), or he or she may be expected to do community service.

Formal hearing. Before a petition for a formal hearing can be filed, the court must find that it is in the best interest of the child and society. If the decision is made to proceed with a formal hearing, a petition charging delinquency (or unruliness or deprivation, as appropriate) must be signed by the com-plaining witness. The witness could be a police officer, a school official, or an injured citizen.

Once the judge signs the petition, a date is set for the formal hearing. The parents and child are notified by a summons. The summons requires those named in it to appear in juvenile court at a certain time and date. A copy of the peti-tion, detailing the charges against the child, accompanies the summons to the parents.



The primary goal in the formal hearing for juveniles is to do whatever is in the best interest of the child, whereas in a trial, it is to determine whether the defendant (an adult or juvenile who is being treated as an adult) is guilty or not guilty. (See the Table below to compare the differences between formal hearings for juveniles and trials for adults.)

Ways in Which a Formal Hearing for a Juvenile Differs from an Adult Trial


Formal Hearing

Adult Trial


To do what is best for the child, and to decide if the child is guilty of committing a delinquent act.

To determine whether the defendant is innocent or guilty of charges.


To present case, get at facts, and consider best interest of the child.

To present evidence to prove the state's charges against the defendant.


To defend the child against charges; to see the child gets a fair hearing, to see that best interest of the child is served.

To defend the accused against charges; to be sure the accused gets a fair trial.


The rules of evidence are set by the judge in each individual case.

Strict rules of evidence


Jury No right to jury.

Defendants have right to trial by jury.

Press and Public

Spectators or press allowed only with permission of judge. This is to protect the child.

Generally, press (written media) and spectators are allowed.

In some juvenile courts, the arraignment is held at the same time as the detention hearing (previously discussed). This procedure is similar to that for adults but is less structured. At the arraignment, youths hear the charges against them and admit or deny them. If the arraignment is not held, youths are informed of the charges and plead guilty or not guilty at the formal hearing.

A formal hearing has two parts. The first part is the adjudicatory hearing, which is basically the same as an adult trial. Its purpose is to determine whether the child committed a delinquent or un-ruly act. The adjudicatory hearing must be held within 10 days of the detention hearing if the juvenile remains in custody. It must take place within 60 days of arraignment if the youth is not held in detention.

After listening to all of the evidence, the judge decides whether the child committed the offense charged. If the judge finds the youth did not commit the offense charged, the youth will be released. If the judge finds that the juvenile did commit the offense charged, then a dispositional hearing will be held.

The second part of the formal hearing is the dispositional hearing. It may immediately follow the adjudicatory hearing, but it often takes place at a later date. If the disposition is to take place later, the judge may order a predisposition investigation if a party requests one. In the dispositional hearing, the judge decides what the treatment is to be. It is similar to a sentencing hearing after an adult trial.

At the dispositional hearing, the prosecution and the defense can call witnesses and present evidence in an effort to influence the judge regarding the type of treatment he or she orders. Remember, the goal of the judge is to order whatever he or she thinks is in the best interests of the juvenile.

Juveniles do not have the right to a trial by jury. In the early 1970s, the Supreme Court determined that using a jury in juvenile cases would bring the delay, formality, adversarial nature, and "clamor" of adult jury trials-factors that would not nec-essarily be in the best interest of the child. In re Burrus and McKeiver v. Pennsylvania, 403 U.S. 528 (1971).

Some Supreme Court justices disagreed with this opinion. They argued that the consequences of juvenile hearings are the same as adult trials and there should be similar procedures. What do you think?

Disposition of the Case

After hearing the evidence, the judge has several treatment choices:

1. Release the child to the custody of the par-ent or legal guardian with no court supervision.
2. Place the child on probation with certain conditions.
3. Commit the child to the Department of Juvenile Justice.
4. Detain the juvenile at a youth detention center for up to 90 days.
5. Send the juvenile to an outdoor program or boot camp.

Usually, a commitment to the Department of Juvenile Justice is for two years. However, if the offense the child committed comes under the Designated Felony Act (outlined in the table below), there will be a special hearing to decide whether restrictive custody is needed. If the judge finds that restrictive custody is necessary, the child will be committed to the Department of Juvenile Justice for five years.

A juvenile 13 years of age or older who is convicted of an offense over which the superior court has exclusive jurisdiction is committed to the Department of Corrections. Until the juvenile reaches the age of 17, he or she is housed separately from adults in a youth confinement unit designed to provide rehabilitation. (In some cases, however, the superior court can transfer the case to juvenile court. The table below illustrates alternative penalties for certain felony offenses.)

Designated Felony Offenses/Penalties

Youths at least 13 years old who have

  • attempted murder or kidnapping;
  • committed kidnapping, arson, in the first degree, aggravated assault, arson in the second degree, aggravated batter, robbery or armed robbery not involving a firearm, or highjacking a motor vehicle
  • committed any other act that, if done by an adult, would be a felony, provided the charged juvenile has three times previously been found to have committed delinquent acts considered to be felonies if done by an adult;
  • been found in possession of a weapon within a school safety zone or at a school building or function or on school property or a school bus;
  • been found in possession of or have under his control a pistol or revolver; if the juvenile has previously been found ot have committed the delinquent act; and
  • committed an act within the exclusive jurisdiction of hte superior court, but the case has been transferred to the juvenile court

If the court finds such child is in need of restrictive custody, the child will be:

  • committed the the Department of Juvenile Justice for at least five years;
  • confined in a Youth Development Campus for 12 to 60 months. Then the juvenile court must review the case to decide further treatment; or
  • placed under intensive supervision for a period of 12 months (but not past the child's 21st birthday) following the period of confinement.





If a juvenile is committed to the Department of Juvenile Justice, the department will determine where he or she will be placed and for how long. Initially, a screening committee of the department-including a representative of the juvenile court and parent(s)-makes these decisions. (Some placement options are listed in the table below.)

What Can Happen to You if You Are Found to Have Committed a Delinquent Act

Probation or Court Supervision

Committed to Department of Juvenile Justice

General Conditions:

  • Not to break any laws
  • To attend school regularly
  • To report to probation officer
  • To obey parent(s) or guardian(s)
  • Not to use drugs or alcohol

Other possible conditions:

  • A curfew
  • Limits on places or associations
  • Community service
  • Intensive probation
  • Restitution
  • Special educational programs
  • Counseling
  • Suspension of driver's license
  • Essays or reports
  • Testing
  • Supervision fee
  • Special residential treatment program


1. Conditional release to parents

2. Intensive supervision

3. Nonresidential community treatment or day center

4. Special residential treatment center or program (for job training, drug and alcohol abuse, wilderness program, etc.)

5. Youth Development Campus (assignment based on sex, public risk, and treatment needs)

6. Out-of-home placement in a group home or shelter

7. Boot camp (military style)

8. Detention at a Youth Detention Center

Before the early 1800s, there were no separate facilities for youth offenders; adults and children were imprisoned in the same institutions. In 1825, the House of Refuge was opened in New York City as a place to house offenders who were minors. Since that time, many similar facilities have been opened in the United States. They have often been called reform schools.

Georgia did not make a legal distinction between adults and children in the criminal justice system until 1905. In that year, the General Assembly established the Georgia State Reformatory for persons 16 years old and younger. Today, Georgia has a network of juvenile detention facilities. Regional youth detention centers house youths who are detained for short periods of time and provide short-term programs.

There are also youth development campuses and a youth development facility for youths serving longer terms. These facilities have schools and rehabilitation programs. The state also has day program centers and some special residential treatment centers for those who abuse drugs and alcohol. Following release, the juvenile receives aftercare, a program that helps with readjustment to home and community life.

State laws passed in 1990 to curb drug abuse restrict the ability of any adult with a drug-use conviction to be licensed as a professional by the state, to obtain a student loan for college, to collect a state pension, or to receive a state contract.


* Excerpted from An Introduction to Law in Georgia, Fourth Edition, published by the Carl Vinson Institute of Government, 1998 (updated 2004). The Vinson Institute is not responsible for errors in the online text. Content is for information only; in no way should the information in the book be considered legal advice to anyone on any matter for which there are legal implications. Any such matter should be specifically addressed with an attorney. The book is available for purchase ator by contacting the Publications Program, Carl Vinson Institute of Government, University of Georgia, 201 M. Milledge Avenue, Athens, GA 30602; telephone 706-542-6377; fax 706-542-6239.

Last Review and Update: Apr 12, 2005