Minnesota’s Juvenile Courts
Most people probably have a general idea that there are separate Minnesota courts for children who are charged with committing a crime. But what exactly do juvenile courts do, and when could one be involved if your child is charged with a crime?
First, let’s get some terminology straight. “Jurisdiction” means the power, or authority, or a court to hear a case. The court that usually has jurisdiction over criminal prosecution of adults is called the district court. A juvenile court, in this context, is the alternative to the district court.
Juvenile courts generally have jurisdiction over cases where a child is alleged to be delinquent. While “delinquent” may sound like the child failed to turn in some homework, the word covers a wide range of wrongdoing. It is essentially any violation of federal, state, or local law. A few things are not considered delinquency—minor traffic offenses and some misdemeanors if the child has not previously been found to have committed a misdemeanor.
Finding that a child is delinquent means that the court has found that the child violated a law. The effect of that finding is not the same as finding an adult guilty of a crime, though. Possibly the most important difference is the individualized focus of the juvenile court’s determination of the consequences for the child if he is found to be delinquent. The court will work to determine the individual needs of the child and can use its discretion to come up with what the appropriate sentence. This can range from a warning, a restriction on contact with the victim of the crime, probation, chemical dependency treatment, or, in extreme cases, a determination that the child should be placed out of his home.
Who qualifies as a child? In general, it’s anyone under 18. If the person was under 18 at the time the crime was committed and is currently under 19, that is also considered a juvenile court issue. Juvenile court jurisdiction can even extend up to age 21 if the child has already been found to be delinquent but later fails to appear, runs away, or similar. Minnesota law doesn’t specify a minimum age that a child needs to reach before he or she can be found to be delinquent in juvenile court, but the child’s attorney can always argue that the child is incompetent or too young to have been capable of forming any intent to commit the crime.
More serious offenses can take jurisdiction away from the juvenile court. If the child is 16 years of age or older and is charged with first-degree murder, the district court, not the juvenile court, has jurisdiction over the case. The district court also will have jurisdiction over sentencing for any other crimes that the child is charged with that arose out of the same incident.