Do Juveniles Get Jury Trials?

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By Christopher Coble, Esq. on March 25, 2015 1:45 PM

Juveniles occupy an odd place in the criminal justice system -- sometimes treated as adults, sometimes not. And when determining whether juveniles get jury trials, the answer is like that of many legal questions: it depends.

So let's take a look at some of the factors that determine if a juvenile will get a criminal jury trial.

The Rule

For the most part, juvenile criminal defendants do not have a constitutional right to a jury trial, and therefore cannot demand a jury trial.

In 1971, the Supreme Court decided that juvenile court proceedings were "substantially similar to a criminal trial," and thus jury trials are not required in juvenile court proceedings. The ruling was also predicated on protecting juveniles, and "the idealistic prospect of an intimate, informal protective proceeding."

The Exceptions

While juveniles don't have a constitutional right to a trial by jury, there are some cases where they will get one anyway.

The most common way for a juvenile to get a jury trial is if he or she is charged as an adult. This can happen automatically if the alleged offender is over the age of 16 and the charges are serious, like rape or murder. Certain states have statutory exclusions that prevent certain criminal offenses from being tried in juvenile courts.

Juveniles can also end up in adult court through a judicial waiver process. This happens when a juvenile court judge elects to transfer the case from juvenile courts, and can be based on the seriousness of the crime or the juvenile offender's criminal history.

The minimum age for waiver varies by state: most states only permit waiver to adult court for 17 or 18-year-olds, while some allow it for defendants as young as 13 or 14.

A last important note on juvenile justice: Although they can be tried for murder as adults, under current law juveniles cannot face the death penalty.

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