Delinquency & Unruly Prosecution
In our society, children are expected to follow the rules and laws in the same manner as adults. In addition, laws or rules that apply only to children because of their age were at common law referred to as “status offenses”. As a general rule, a child that violates a codified law or ordinance would be considered to be a “delinquent” child. In contrast, a child that engages in behaviors that show a defiance of authority, such as running away or staying out past curfew, would be considered to be an “unruly” child. One notable exception is underage use of tobacco, which under Ohio law is considered neither a delinquency nor an unruly offense, but is simply referred to as a “tobacco offense”. Habitual truancy is also considered unruly behavior which is determined by the number of unexcused hours of absence during a school year.
In Wayne County, incoming reports regarding juveniles are screened by the Juvenile Division Delinquency/Unruly prosecutor for possible charges. Although a juvenile proceeding is a civil, and not a criminal proceeding, a child coming before the juvenile court on a delinquency or unruly complaint is
entitled to some of the same legal rights as an adult criminal defendant. Therefore, some of the same considerations that go into charging an adult apply, including whether the evidence can show beyond a reasonable doubt that the act occurred as alleged.
If the facts warrant filing a complaint, the Juvenile Division also considers whether the child is eligible for the juvenile diversion program. The juvenile diversion program works with children that have no prior record with the juvenile justice system and that appear favorable to correction without the need for a court order. Ideally, the child will learn from the experience and will avoid future behaviors that could bring him or her before the court. There is incentive for children and their families to work with the diversion program, as successful completion results in no juvenile court record. However, a child is not automatically eligible for diversion simply because they have no prior record, and which cases are deemed appropriate for diversion lies solely within the discretion of the Juvenile Division Delinquency/Unruly prosecutor. There is also an option for diversion for youths deemed Habitually Truant which specifically addresses attendance issues.
For children that fail to complete diversion, or that are not otherwise eligible, a complaint is filed alleging the child to be delinquent or unruly. In some instances, complaints can be filed from the same incident alleging that the child is both delinquent and unruly. Although the traditional dispositional alternatives available are similar for delinquent or unruly children, an unruly child can only be held in detention for a maximum of twenty-four hours or until the court’s next business day. This is a limit imposed by the Ohio Revised Code, and not a local policy decision.
The goal of the juvenile justice system is rehabilitation. In contrast, the adult justice system focuses on punishment. The reason underlying the difference is that children are in the process of maturing and are more likely to engage in poor decision making. With that in mind, the typical dispositional order is designed to encourage the child to make better decisions in the future, while providing consequences for the behavior that necessitated the court’s intervention. However, in certain circumstances, a child can be classified as a “serious youthful offender” and dispositional orders in those cases are a blend of consequences from both the juvenile and the adult systems. In the case of the commission of some very serious offenses (homicide, violent rape, etc.) an older child can be “bound over” to be tried as an adult in the Common Pleas Court.
In many cases, an adjudication as a delinquent or unruly child can later be sealed and possibly expunged. Generally, the effect of sealing the record is to treat the offense as though the incident never occurred.
The juvenile justice system is only one means from which children learn to obey rules and laws which is a vital skill for functioning in our civil society. Other very important influences to a child’s behavior and adherence to rules include, of course, parental instruction and example, schooling, interactions with peers, and participation in activities.