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How the Juvenile Justice System Works

Updated: Dec 14, 2023


The juvenile justice system involves a series of stages where decisions are made about whether a child is delinquent and how to handle the case. What follows is a brief description of each stage in the juvenile justice process.


Referral is the process through which children come before the juvenile court. Upon

referral, the juvenile court becomes the major service in deciding how to handle the case.


The purpose of intake is to screen referrals. During this stage, the child, his or her parents and other parties involved in the case are interviewed. Information is collected about the child’s behavioral history, school performance, family situation and other factors. This information is written into a report, along with recommendations about how to handle the case.


Detention is a short-term facility (usually a special building for juveniles) where

children are held while the court decides how to handle the case. The major reasons for placing a child in a detention facility include:

  1. parents cannot be reached (usually during referral),

  2. nature of the offense (serious delinquency),

  3. behavioral history of the child (continued delinquency),

  4. the child poses a threat to himself or herself or others or

  5. to make certain the child attends court hearings and obeys court decisions. About 20% of all referrals result in detention.

Adjudication hearing

The adjudication hearing is the point in the juvenile court process when a judge listens to the information presented by the various parties and decides such things as:

  1. was an illegal act committed,

  2. what laws were broken,

  3. what are the surrounding circumstances and

  4. what is the best way to handle the case.

Disposition hearing

Disposition is the final stage in deciding what services shall be provided to give the child supervision, care and treatment. The court studies the facts, listens to recommendations, considers the alternatives, decides on a course of action and executes a court order. The two main dispositions are release or participation in a treatment program. Release may be ordered when restitution (payment) is made to the victim or when the court feels there is no further need for intervention. Usually, however, the court will order the child to participate in one or more treatment programs.


Probation is the treatment most often ordered by the juvenile court. A juvenile probation officer is assigned to the case to keep track of the child’s activities and behavior through periodic contacts with the child, his or her family, school authorities, employers or others. The child must follow rules while on probation. These rules usually include:

  1. attending meetings with the probation officer,

  2. regular school or work attendance,

  3. obeying parents,

  4. set hours to be off the streets (curfew),

  5. staying out of trouble and

  6. getting court approval before leaving the area.

Probation violations are a signal to the court the need for continued or additional treatment and can result in a further order of disposition to place the child in another treatment program.

Community-based programs

Treatment programs located in the community provide a middle ground between probation and institutional placement. The most common community-based programs include group homes, foster homes, foster care facilities and minimum-security facilities. Their purpose is to keep the child in the community while providing residential treatment.


Institutions are the most severe and restrictive form of juvenile court disposition. Institutional populations represent the toughest cases brought before the juvenile courts, children whose behavior poses a threat to society or is most in need of treatment. About 5% of juvenile court referrals result in institutionalization.*

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