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(See the “Terminology” section in Chapter 1 for the committee’s definitions.) Most people would say that a juvenile delinquent is a badly behaved teenager under age 18 who gets into trouble frequently—or, more precisely, one who gets into trouble with police frequently.The image that comes to mind is an adolescent who skips school, drinks alcohol, uses illegal drugs, steals, is often belligerent, and may be prone to violence.
It does not necessarily involve careful and accurate assessments of needs or treatment.
Thus, it is not possible to infer the dangerousness and harmfulness of a youth’s behavior solely on the basis of how that individual is handled in the juvenile justice system.
A wide variety of professionals, semiprofessionals, citizens, and volunteers participate in the juvenile justice process.
Although all participants share a general commitment to the declared goals, they rely on their own professional perspectives and values in making decisions and recommending particular actions for individual cases.
Some youth are treated harshly and receive severe punishments, including long periods of confinement, and others are handled informally and even diverted from the process without any legal record of the encounter.
The seriousness of the offense and the past record of the offender help to determine but do not ordinarily control the outcome.Defense attorneys want their clients to be treated fairly and for all youth meriting rehabilitation to receive services that will help them to stay out of trouble.The public wants the entire process to be cost-effective and their neighborhoods and homes to be safe.DEFINING JUVENILE DELINQUENCY The juvenile justice system is the combined effect of decisions and actions taken by the police, the courts, and a wide variety of human services agencies as they respond to incidents of juvenile delinquency. The answer varies from place to place and from case to case. Some illegal behaviors by underage minors are considered to be acts of delinquency; some are not.How does one define the system that responds to cases of delinquency?There are too many other factors involved, some of which stem from the youth’s behavior, but others originate in bureaucracy, fiscal and political issues, and cultural definitions of social problems.This chapter aims to provide an overview of the practice of juvenile justice in the United States—that is, the patterns and variations that emerge in 50 states and the District of Columbia as well as those that characterize what is often a highly localized process.Do youth have to be arrested to have contact with the system?Must they be formally charged, adjudicated, or placed in a program to be in the system?Many factors govern the path that an individual delinquency case takes through the justice process.The juvenile justice process is organizationally complex, value-driven, and often politicized.