How Is a Juvenile Delinquent Defined By Law?

Legal Definition of a Juvenile Delinquent

In February of 1992, David Dinkins, the mayor of New York City, planned to speak to students at Thomas Jefferson High School located in Brooklyn. Officials scheduled extra police and security to check out the building in anticipation of his appearance. Before his arrival, two teenage boys were shot. Both died.

According to the FBI, the number of juveniles arrested for homicide between 1983 and 1992 increased 128 percent. In contrast, the adult population had a nine percent increase. Statistics indicate that juvenile crime is a major American crisis that spills over to doctors and hospitals. JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association, claims that gunshot wounds were a leading cause of death among high school-aged children.

Damion’s Death

Around 11 o’clock on a hot Sunday morning, three children were playing in the backyard behind their grandma’s house. Damion, a three-year-old in diapers, managed to wiggle free of the two older girls, one five-year-old and the other age six, when they pushed his face into a muddy puddle. The girls decided they could do better. One of them ran into the house and came back with a pillow. They put the pillow over Damion’s face. One girl straddled the boy while the other sat on the pillow until Damion stopped struggling. Damion was pronounced dead before he reached the hospital.


Investigators and police eventually concluded the girls intended to kill Damion with the pillow according to a spokesperson for the Riverside County Sheriff’s Office in California. He went on to say, “We really don’t have a motive.”

District Attorney Grover Trask commented that as the California law is written, children under age 14 could be charged only if there is clear proof that at the time of committing the act, they knew it was wrong. It’s clear the criminal justice system is not prepared to do anything with little girls five and six years old. Most states consider children under age seven to be legally incapable of forming mens rea, that is, “guilty mind,” which is necessary to be morally guilty of a crime and thus, subject to criminal punishment.

He Is So Young

At common law, a child under seven is assumed unconditionally unable to form criminal intent. This is the basis of the defense of infancy. For this reason, most of these cases are adjudicated—or judged—in juvenile court. The same charge for a child between 7 and 14 is debatable, and some jurisdictions permit the child to be tried as an adult, especially if the crime is particularly heinous. However, the prosecution must be able to introduce evidence that shows the delinquent child knew what he or she was doing. How is this done? Well, if the child tried to conceal the crime, bribe a witness or accuse others of the deed, he or she is showing their hand.

Laws are still evolving as the age of murderers drops and modern statutes differ in their treatment—some have raised the age while some have modified it—but all agree that it is the child’s age at the time of commission of the crime and not the age at trial that determines the waiver from a juvenile court to adult venues.


Variance is a term used to describe the actuality that no one seems to agree on what exactly juvenile delinquency is, when the criminal justice system should get involved, or to what extent. Consequently, a juvenile is any person below a certain age that any given jurisdiction uses to define an adult. It varies from state-to-state, and while eighteen years old is the most common age for an adult, some states may be different.

Juvenile Delinquent Defined


Police officials often adopt a general opinion about juvenile delinquents and, through their work, discover they are youngsters who are impulsive, immature first-time offenders who very likely will get a break. Many police officers with extensive juvenile experience believe that juvenile delinquents are those involved in a series of antisocial acts who do so as a result of personality disorder and will usually be repeat offenders and the most likely to be processed into the criminal justice system.

School Counselors

Their academic record begins to frame their school concept and a juvenile delinquent to them is someone who is not working to capacity. School counselors assess the behavioral angle and a juvenile delinquent to them is someone who is either unable or unwilling to respond to school rules, teacher demands, and who sometimes creates altercations.

Special Ed

For those who work within special education, a juvenile delinquent is a handicapped or disabled person, either mentally or physically or both, and the school system puts the struggling student into situations where they are unable to compete which makes them hostile or frustrated, for example, earning them the designation learning disabled.


The family notion of a juvenile delinquent child as perceived from the viewpoint of parents and siblings is a child who is “out of control” or incorrigible; he or she does not obey parents, guardians, or the demands and reciprocal exchange of home life in general.


The official juvenile delinquent legal viewpoint is that this is an underage offender who violates the law and, as a result, the courts can exercise paternalism. This court paternalism is rooted in history and stems from a legal concept called parens patriae, meaning, “parent of the country.” The philosophy behind it is that parents are merely custodians of the child and it is up to the state, that is to say, the juvenile and family courts to uphold the ultimate responsibility for its minors and minor offenders.

Social Services

Social services sees a child who has been petitioned through the system for breaking the law and he or she is either a JINS—a juvenile in need of supervision—or the situation may present as FINS—families in need of supervision.

In other words, “juvenile delinquency” is an obscure term and means different things to different states, communities and individuals. Your interpretation is developed by the understanding of these principles.


  • Campbell, Andrea. Legal Ease: A Guide to Criminal Law, Evidence and Procedure. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas Publishers, 2013. Book.
  • FindLaw: Criminal Procedure in Juvenile Court
  • Margolis, Jeffrey A. Teen Crime Wave: A Growing Problem. Springfield, NJ: Enslow Publishers, Inc., 1997. Book.
  • Kuklin, Susan. No Choirboy: Murder, Violence, and Teenagers on Death Row. New York: Henry Holt, 2008. Book