Understanding Utah’s Juvenile Justice System

Few events could be more stressful than watching your child be accused of committing a juvenile crime.  It’s a difficult time for you and your family, but the better you understand how Utah’s juvenile justice system works, the calmer and more confident you will feel, and the better you will be able to support your child as their case develops.

Dramatic image of a sad teenage girl crying

Common Juvenile Offenses

In Utah, people under the age of 18 are considered juveniles.  There are some circumstances where people younger than 18 can be tried as adults, but we’ll talk more about that later.  For now, let’s start by looking at how Utah’s juvenile court process works under normal circumstances.

Just like their adult counterparts, young people can be charged with three types of offenses:

  • Infractions — These are minor offenses which can trigger fines, but no jail time.
  • Misdemeanors — These are one step up from infractions, and are broken down into two categories: Class A, which is more serious, and Class B, which is less serious. Examples could include simple assault, shoplifting (theft), and marijuana possession under one pound.
  • Felonies — These are the most serious offenses.  Felonies are broken down into first, second, and third degree, with first degree being the most severe.  Examples would include rape, murder, and robbery.

Minors tend to be charged with offenses like trespassing, vandalism, shoplifting, underage drinking, and drug possession.  Unless the charge is serious enough for the offender to be tried as an adult, he or she will be processed through Utah’s juvenile court system.

The Juvenile Court Process in Utah

First, the police will report the alleged offense to juvenile court.  The court will then assign someone called an intake officer to meet with you and your family to determine what the next step should be. This determination depends on whether your child denies or admits to the allegations.

If he or she denies the charges, there are two routes the case could take.  Depending on variables like the severity of the offense and whether there is a record of previous instances, the intake officer could either:

  1. Refer your child to the non-judicial program.  This means your child will be bound to the terms of a contract that will outline restrictions and guidelines going forward, or probation.  If your child can stick to the contract, he or she won’t have to go to court.  This option is only available to first-time offenders.
  2. Schedule a court hearing before a judge.  Statistically speaking, this is the route approximately one third of offenders will take.

While adult and juvenile court are somewhat alike in that both involve due process and the right to call upon a criminal defense lawyer, in many ways they are very different.  Juvenile courts are more stringent than adult courts regarding the protection of privacy, and therefore will typically hold closed hearings which only you and the intake officer must attend.  (In fact, if you fail to attend, you can be actually charged with contempt of court.)  They also do not involve juries, nor do they allow bail to be posted.

Juvenile courts are civil, not criminal, which means that if your child is found guilty by the judge, he or she will be “adjudicated delinquent” rather than formally convicted of a crime.  The typical penalties include fines and community service.

judge gavel and money on brown wooden table

When Can a Juvenile Be Charged as an Adult?

As mentioned above, there are cases when a minor can be charged, tried, and sentenced like an adult.  This will happen automatically if he or she is 16 or 17, and:

  • Is accused of committing murder or aggravated murder.
  • Has been in a secured facility and is charged with a felony.

While not necessarily automatic, adult treatment may be ordered if:

  • Your child is 16 or 17, and is charged with committing any of the following SYOL (Serious Youth Offender Law) felonies: aggravated arson, aggravated assault, aggravated robbery, aggravated burglary, aggravated sexual assault, attempted murder or attempted aggravated murder, aggravated kidnapping, or discharging a firearm from a vehicle.
  • Your child is 14 or older, commits a felony, and the prosecutor convinces the judge that an adult trial would be beneficial to the state.

In these latter two scenarios, the juvenile can fight a transfer to adult court if he or she meets both of the following requirements:

  • He or she has never been adjudicated delinquent for a weapons felony.
  • The offense was not premeditated.

Furthermore, if your child acted as part of a group, and can establish that he or she had less responsibility than the other defendants, it may be possible to prevent a transfer to adult court.

If your young loved one has been accused of a misdemeanor or felony, an experienced Salt Lake City criminal defense lawyer can help fight the charges and may be able to keep the case out of adult court.  For a free and confidential legal consultation, call Darwin Overson at (801) 758-2287 today.