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Criminal Resource Manual

116. Juvenile Delinquency Prosecution -- Introduction

Nearly two-thirds of all youth arrested are referred to a court with juvenile jurisdiction for further processing. Juvenile Offenders and Victims: A National Report, National Center for Juvenile Justice (August, 1995). Cases that progress through the system may result in adjudication and court-ordered supervision or out-of-home placement, or may result in transfer for criminal (adult) prosecution. Id. Over the five-year period from 1988 through 1992, the juvenile courts saw a disproportional increase in violent offense cases and weapon law violations. Id.

Many gang members and other violent offenders are under the age of eighteen when they commit criminal acts. Therefore, under 18 U.S.C.A. §  5031, these offenders are classified as "juveniles" for purposes of federal prosecution. Federal crimes committed by the juveniles which would be crimes if committed by an adult or violations of 18 U.S.C.A. § 922(x) are classified as acts of "juvenile delinquency." Gang members are treated as adults for federal criminal prosecutions if they have attained their eighteenth birthday when they commit federal crimes.

At common law, one accused of a crime was treated essentially the same whether he was an infant or an adult. It was presumed that a person under the age of seven could not entertain criminal intent and thus was incapable of committing a crime. Allen v. United States, 150 U.S. 551, 14 S. Ct. 196, 37 L. Ed. 1179 (1893). One between the ages of seven and fourteen was presumed incapable of entertaining criminal intent but such presumption was rebuttable. Id. A person fourteen years of age and older was prima facie capable of committing crime. Id.

Prior to 1938, there was no federal legislation providing for special treatment for juveniles. In 1938, the Federal Juvenile Delinquency Act was passed with the essential purpose of keeping juveniles apart from adult criminals. The original legislation provided juveniles with certain important rights including the right not to be sentenced to a term beyond the age of twenty-one. This early law also provided that an individual could be prosecuted as a juvenile delinquent only if the Attorney General in his discretion so directed. The 1938 Act gave the Attorney General the option to proceed against juvenile offenders as adults or as delinquents except with regard to those allegedly committing offenses punishable by death or life imprisonment. The Juvenile Delinquency Act was amended in 1948, with few substantive changes.

In 1974, Congress adopted the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (hereinafter referred to as "the Act"). Its stated purpose was "to provide basic procedural rights for juveniles who came under federal jurisdiction and to bring federal procedures up to the standards set by various model acts, many state codes and court decisions". S. Rep. No. 1011, 93 Cong., 2d Sess., reprinted in 1974 U.S.C.C.A.N. 5283, 5284. The purpose of the Act is to remove juveniles from the ordinary criminal process in order to avoid the stigma of a prior criminal conviction and to encourage treatment and rehabilitation. United States v. One Juvenile Male, 40 F.3d 841, 844 (6th Cir. 1994). This purpose, however, must be balanced against the need to protect the public from violent offenders. Id. The intent of federal laws concerning juveniles are to help ensure that state and local authorities would deal with juvenile offenders whenever possible, keeping juveniles away from the less appropriate federal channels since Congress' desire to channel juveniles into state and local treatment programs is clearly intended in the legislative history of 18 U.S.C.A. § 5032. United States v. Juvenile Male, 864 F. 2d 641, 644 (9th Cir. 1988). Referral to the state courts should always be observed except in the most severe of cases. United States v. Juvenile, 599 F. Supp. 1126, 1130 (D. Or. 1984).