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How do states structure, operate, and support deliquency cases in court? Every state has a system of courts that address the behavior of youth charged with a delinquent or criminal offense. The statutory purpose of these courts, whether they are specialized, and how judges are selected, assigned caseloads, and trained and supported vary between states. These distinctions influence to what extent judicial decisions are aligned with what research and best practices show work to improve public safety and youth outcomes, and shape the experiences of youth, families, and system stakeholders. For an in-depth examination of how all 50 states handle these issues, along with recommendations for improvement, see Courting Judicial Excellence in Juvenile Justice: A 50 State-Study at https://csgjusticecenter.org/publications/courting-judicial-excellence-in-juvenile-justice-a-50-state-study/.

Judicial selection

States differ on how judges who hear delinquency and other types of youth/family cases are selected, with judges typically being elected, appointed, or some combination of the two, with differences sometimes even within the same state. The method of judicial selection can shape the type of candidates who are interested in serving on the bench, their qualifications, the stature of the juvenile court, and how free judges feel to make decisions consistently aligned with research and best practice.

Elected:
Judges are generally selected by public election. Depending on the state, judges are elected to a general trial court or specifically to a juvenile/family court position.
Appointed:
Judges are selected by appointment, typically through the legislature and/or governor’s office. Depending on the state, judges are appointed to a general trial court or specifically to a juvenile/family court position.
Combination:
Judges are initially appointed and then are retained through a public election, or they are appointed in certain geographic areas of the state and elected in others.
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    Judicial specialization

    While some states have judges that are assigned and dedicated to the juvenile court, many states do not have judges that specialize in these cases or only do so in large urban areas. Instead, judges with no experience or training in juvenile justice might routinely handle delinquency cases. Without specialized courts and caseloads, states might find it difficult to ensure judges consistently make decisions in the best interests of public safety and youth outcomes guided by research and the developmental distinctions between youth and adults.

    All mixed case types:
    All, or nearly all judges, are not specialized and carry a mixed caseload of juvenile and adult cases, including often both criminal and civil cases.
    Mostly mixed:
    Most judges in the state are not specialized and carry a mixed caseload.
    Mostly specialized:
    Most judges in the state who handle delinquency and family cases are specialized in this area of practice.
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      Caseload assignment

      Both across and within states, a variety of policies govern whether and how judges are assigned delinquency cases. In some states, state statute or court rules dictate assignment policies for the entire state, or sometimes, only for geographic areas of a certain size. In other states, case assignments and rotation lengths are at the sole discretion of local or state court judicial leaders such as a presiding judge. As a result of these policies, judges that handle delinquency cases, the stability of the juvenile court and its philosophy and practices, and ultimately, youths’ court experiences and outcomes, can differ substantially from one community to the next. 

      Mixed assignment methods:
      A mix of methods including statute, court rules, and/or individual discretion are used to determine delinquency caseload assignments and rotations in different geographic areas of the state.
      Individual discretion:
      State or local court leaders have discretion on delinquency caseload assignments and rotations.
      Statute/State court rules:
      State statute and/or court rules determine the structure of the assignment of delinquency cases and potential rotations statewide.
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        Judicial experience, training, and tools 2022

        States range in whether, and to what extent, they ensure that all judges that handle delinquency cases statewide have the qualifications, training, and tools needed for informed decision making.   

        Qualification requirements: Regardless of whether judges are elected or appointed, most states have not established qualification requirements or even guidelines in statute or court rules—such as previous work experience with youth and families—for judges to handle delinquency cases generally, or specifically, for eligibility for election or appointment to a juvenile/family court position.

        Required annual training: Most states offer regular, annual training on juvenile justice topics, but states range on whether this training is, in fact, required for all judges statewide that handle delinquency cases. As a result, in many states, judges can handle delinquency cases without ever receiving an orientation to juvenile justice case law or research or receiving ongoing juvenile justice training.

        Required risk/need assessments and pre-dispositional reports: Although most states (38) have adopted uniform state-wide risk/need assessment tools for juvenile probation (see Risk Assessment in the Juvenile Justice GPS). In many states, there is no requirement in statutes or court rules that such assessments be conducted prior to disposition and that a report be provided to the court to inform dispositional decisions. As a result, pre-dispositional assessment and reporting practices can vary substantially across geographic areas and individual courts within a state.  

        Juvenile justice bench books: Many states have developed practice/bench books that detail family court and juvenile justice case law and procedures. However, states differ in whether they have established any type of tools, guides, or bench cards for judges statewide on juvenile justice research and best practices to support judges to make research-informed decisions on delinquency cases.

        Courtroom shackling

        Most states have the statutory ability to routinely shackle children during any delinquency-related juvenile court proceeding, regardless of the juvenile’s age or alleged offense.

        For certain criminal proceedings, unless a judge makes individual findings about the need to apply shackles, routine shackling would be considered a violation of the US Constitution for an adult—but not for a child.

        Recent changes

        • An Ohio state court rule effective 7/1/16 requires local rules about restraints.

        • A Delaware law effective 9/6/16 restricts the use of shackles during proceedings.

        • Arizona amended a court rule effective 1/1/17 that restricts routine shackling.

        • North Dakota added a court rule effective 3/1/17 that prohibits routine use of restraints. 

        Learn more

        Shackles are defined by the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges to include handcuffs, waist chains, ankle restraints, zip ties, or other restraints that are designed to impede movement or control behavior.

        As of November, 2015, 10 states have legislation and 12 states have requirements initiated by the judiciary to prevent routine shackling of juveniles.

        No statewide restriction:

        No statewide requirement

        Restricted by judiciary:

        Courtroom shackling is restricted by the state court

        Restricted by legislature:

        Courtroom shackling is restricted legislatively

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          Competency

          All but six states have statewide competency to stand trial requirements for juveniles. Competency refers to a person’s current state in the courtroom rather than the defense of insanity at the time of the alleged offense.  A state's age of criminal responsibility or infancy defense provision is sometimes confused with the concept of juvenile competency.  Age-bound defenses are usually described in penal codes, which apply to (adult) crimes but not delinquent acts.

          All states have competency statutes that apply to adults and generally align with a 1960 U.S. Supreme Court Case, Dusky v. U.S., 362 U.S. 402. The Dusky Standard has two tests: does the person have sufficient present ability to consult with their lawyer with a reasonable degree of rational understanding, and does the person have a rational and factual understanding of the proceedings against him.

          States set criteria to help judges determine whether a person is competent. Most states (32) have evaluation criteria just for juveniles, and a few of those (3) have broadened the scope from a severe mental illness and/or developmental disability diagnosis to include considerations for developmental immaturity, permitting a more individualized determination. Effective 1-1-16, Oklahoma increased the tally to 33 and 4, respectively.

          Learn more

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            About this project

            Juvenile Justice GPS (Geography, Policy, Practice, Statistics) is a project to develop a repository providing state policy makers and system stakeholders with a clear understanding of the juvenile justice landscape in the states.

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