Understanding the juvenile justice system in Virginia

The juvenile court system in Virginia differs greatly from the adult criminal system.

According to the Virginia Department of State Police, there were 10,811 juveniles across the state arrested in 2015 for crimes classified as Group A, which include offenses such as weapon violations, drug crimes, arson and assault. Another 9,606 were arrested on Group B charges, such as drunkenness, runaway and trespassing.

The way Virginia handles juvenile crimes largely differs from the adult criminal process. It is important for people to understand the options available and know what to expect when entering into the juvenile system.

What happens when a juvenile is charged with a crime?

After a juvenile - which is anyone younger than 18 - is charged with a crime, he or she will go to intake at a juvenile court. From there, the officer at intake may either file a petition against the juvenile or take an informal action.

What is an informal action?

An informal action may include any of the following:

  • Recommend the juvenile go to counseling.
  • Refer the juvenile to a crisis shelter.
  • Take another diversion, such as sending the juvenile to an educational program.

Informal actions occur mainly with first offenses but could be used otherwise.

What does a formal action mean?

A formal action occurs when the intake officer files a petition that either releases the juvenile to his or her parents or detain the juvenile. Following a formal action that results in a detention is a detention hearing to determine whether further detention is needed.

What is the court process?

Whereas adults go to trial, juveniles in Virginia go to adjudication. Similar to trial, there are testimonies, evidence and witnesses presented. A judge issues a ruling, either not guilty, which dismisses the case, or guilty, which results in a dispositional hearing and sanctions.

What are common sanctions brought against juveniles?

The sanctions - or consequences - of a juvenile crime are highly varied, depending on the charge. For example, a judge could decide at a dispositional hearing to fine the juvenile or place him or her on probation. There are also programs juveniles may be ordered into.

Juveniles may have to undergo social, educational and psychological evaluations. In some cases, a judge may place juveniles into a correctional facility or residential facility.

Are juvenile crimes expunged?

According to the Virginia Attorney General's Office, most juvenile crimes are destroyed once two things take place: the person turns 19 years old, and it has been five years since the last time the person attended a hearing on the case. This is not true, however, of crimes that would be considered felonies if committed by an adult. In those cases, the crime remains public.

Additionally, if a juvenile is charged with a crime and the case is dismissed or the juvenile is found not guilty, he or she may request for the record of the case to be destroyed.

There is much to consider when entering into the juvenile justice system. Anyone who has concerns about this topic should speak with a criminal defense attorney in Virginia.