Delinquency court

Can we “throw the book” at juveniles? In light of the recent emails regarding some young alleged vandals, that question is being addressed here. The answer is:

Not really.

Children are still children and the system is set up on the assumption that they will make mistakes and do dumb stuff as they grow up.  The system also assumes that there is a need to punish them, but that punishment is tempered because the offenders are children.

Teenagers, especially those over 16, can be penalized more and can even be certified as adults and tried and sentenced in adult court. (The crime must be very serious and usually all other options in the juvenile court must have been exhausted. Certification is not always easy to accomplish.)   Children who commit traffic crimes can also face some fines in adult traffic court.

But generally speaking children can’t be sentenced to jail. The penalties for children tend to be fines, community service, denial of access to a vehicle, treatment, out-of-home placement, and restitution. Just like with adults, the penalties vary based on the nature of the offense and the child’s record.

A child in court in Nobles County on that child’s first felony level offense might be ordered by the court to do 50 to 100 hours of community service.  Repeat felony offenders may do more community service or may face an out-of-home placement.  50 to 100 hours is a meaningful penalty for a child.  Consider how an adult views a drive from Worthington to Minneapolis, versus how a 10-year-old views the length of that same trip: children don’t experience time the same way adults do.

Restitution, or repayment of the damage done, is something that can be ordered, but parents can’t be ordered to pay on behalf of the child as part of a juvenile delinquency case. (What they may be ordered to pay in a civil action may be a different story.)  A child who is too young to work is not likely to be ordered by the court to make any current payments for restitution.

Minnesota law says that children under the age of 10 are too young to be criminally liable for what they do, and kids that young can’t be taken into juvenile court on a delinquency charge. Under some circumstances, there can be a child protection case filed when a child under the age of 10 has committed a delinquent act. However, if parents have demonstrated an appropriate response to the child’s behavior, and have been willing to accept services recommended by the County, the County may be satisfied without taking the child to court.  The expectation is that parents will be more effective with their own children at that age, and that the parents will use appropriate discipline and deal with the situation so that the children learn from what has happened and don’t repeat their misbehavior.

In my experience children who are 10, 11 or 12 sometimes have trouble understanding what is going on in the courtroom and making the connection between what they did wrong and the court process meant to punish that behavior. So taking them to court weeks after the event may not be as effective as a more immediate response by their parents.

Should children have consequences for what they do–absolutely.  Does the law provide a mechanism for that–in some but not all circumstances.  For very young children, the law assumes and requires that parents deal with the misdeeds of their very young children.  Parents know what punishment will be most meaningful and parents can provide that punishment with an immediacy that the court system can only dream of.  With very young children the system is there to back up the parents with discipline and needed services.

I have said in earlier blogs that I am not going to use this space to tell people what we are going to do in specific cases, and that is still true. Our office will review the matter that gave rise to me writing this, and we will take appropriate action. Because children are involved, the resolution of the case may not be publicized. But we do take these cases seriously.  And I hope it is useful for people to know a little more about what the system is for juvenile offenders.