If you or your child gets into trouble with the law as a minor, many of the processes will run a little differently than that of a tried adult. Here’s what you can expect and what to prepare for if you’re in such a situation.

Complaint Vs. Petition

One wayExternal link opens in new tab or window juvenile law differs from adult law is that in juvenile court, the child is charged with a document called a “petition.” On the other hand, in adult court, the defendant is charged using a document called a “complaint.”

No Juries Present or Involved

In most jurisdictions, when a juvenile case goes to trial, the child is not afforded a jury trial like in adult court. The judge will have the final say on the verdict. While the child is still considered innocent until proven guilty, the prosecutor only has to convince one person that they’re guilty beyond a reasonable doubt instead of to an entire jury.

Conviction Vs. Adjudicated Delinquent

In juvenile court, the child is “adjudicated delinquent” if found guilty and if an adult is found guilty they are “convicted.”


Sentence Vs. Disposition

Sentencing will occur to determine punishment when a defendant is found guilty as an adult. On the other hand, there is a “disposition” to determine what should happen to the juvenile.

Location of the “Disposition”

In adult court, the defendant has all of his or her hearings in the county where they were charged, which is usually where the offense took place. However, in juvenile cases, the case is charged in the county where the offense took place and that is where the case will be tried or a plea of guilty will be entered. Keep in mind though, if the child resides in a different county, then the “disposition” of the case then it’s generally moved to the county of residence.

Rehabilitation Vs. Punishment

There is much more of a focus on rehabilitation of the child and them making changes before they become an adult. Treatment, therapy, and education become the priority instead of just a punishment.

More Options to Prevent “Adjudication”

In juvenile court, the judge can dispose of a case with a continuance for dismissal or a stay of adjudication, even if the prosecutor doesn’t agree. In adult court, there are certain legal concepts that typically only a prosecutor can offer.

Open Vs. Closed Hearings

Juvenile court hearings are closed to the public while all hearings are open to the public in adult court. Usually, only the lawyers, probation, the child, and family are present in the courtroom in juvenile court.

All in the Family

When working in juvenile law, they’re the client but so are the parents or the guardian. The lawyer must keep in mind they’re often working with the entire family.


In some areas, a juvenile may apply for an expungement “at any time.” However, in adult court, there are several restrictions on how soon one can file for an expungement.


As you now know, handling a juvenile case is much different than that of an adult. Handling them like an adult case can be detrimental to the child. You need to work with an experienced criminal defense attorney who is also experienced in juvenile court.