Police Procedures for Crimes Involving a Minor

All law enforcement agencies have specific procedures and rules that officers must follow when engaging with suspects. Most often, crimes are committed by adults over the age of 18, but many juveniles still land in trouble with the law. An estimated 2.7 million youths were arrested in the United States in 1997 alone, but thankfully that number has declined dramatically over the years, down by 74% in 2019.

In 2020, children under 18 accounted for 7% of all arrests for violent crimes. Among those arrests, juveniles accounted for a larger proportion of arrests for robbery (18%) than for the more serious crimes of murder (7%) and aggravated assault (5%). A minor is more likely to commit lesser offenses, such as theft, larceny, alcohol or drug crimes, vandalism, and assault.

How Police Engagement Differs

The juvenile justice system mirrors its counterpart for adults in that it consists of three main parts: policing, courts, and corrections. Beginning with policing, an officer won’t necessarily know that a suspect is a minor when they arrive at the scene. On occasion, that information may have been conveyed beforehand, but not often. 

When apprehending, subduing, or arresting someone – be it an adult or a minor – police will treat all suspects the same way. The procedures we use don’t vary…right up to the use of force. If it’s necessary, we will apply it if the juvenile is not non-compliant or outright combative.

The juvenile justice system in the U.S. endeavors to alter behavior and avoid involvement with the criminal justice system. If we find out or know that the suspect is a minor prior to arriving at a crime scene, we will apply what we call use of discretion. For example situational factors a police officer might consider when dealing with juveniles include: attitude toward, and compliance with law enforcement, as well as family history (if known). 

Options for Dealing With Juveniles

When we arrest a person under the age of 18, we must weigh whether that minor should move forward through a juvenile court proceeding (be processed) or be handled by the juvenile’s family (released). The latter is obviously a less formal approach.

An officer may decide to only question the juvenile, release them with a warning, release them but with an official report, or refer them to a juvenile officer. It’s important to note that we cannot interrogate a minor unless a parent is present. Juveniles are also held in a separate holding area, usually a designated youth room – not a jail cell.

If referred to a juvenile officer, the police officer must conduct an investigation, a parental interview, and counseling. Then the officer may decide to release the minor to:

  • the parents with a warning
  • the parents with an official report
  • a private community agency or 
  • a public social welfare agency 

The Juvenile Court System

In situations where the juvenile’s case is moved to juvenile court, the options are referral without detention and referral with detention. Factors considered in making the call between the two are the juvenile’s age, the severity of the crime, prior contact with law enforcement, the juvenile’s attitude, the juvenile’s need for professional support, the ability of the parents to deal with their child’s problematic behavior, and the rights of the victim of the crime committed by the juvenile.

If found guilty of a crime, juvenile court judges may opt not to incarcerate the minor offender. Judges, too, will consider the juvenile’s threat to others, attitude, treatment needs, and prior record (if any). 
Sadly, some will end up in juvenile correctional facilities. These are not always the best places for troubled youths. That’s why we, as police officers, try to engage juveniles in positive ways through programs such as police athletic leagues and day-to-day interactions in communities and schools. We want to prevent as many juveniles as possible from winding up in the juvenile justice system.

The Takeaway

Generally speaking, juveniles who commit serious crimes – those that would constitute a felony if committed by an adult – are not allowed much leeway. They are charged by the police. However, for misdemeanor acts involving juveniles, an officer may decide to release them to their parents.

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