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What you need to know before entering the juvenile law system

Portsmouth residents may be interested to hear that prior to the age of six or seven, the courts believe that children are not mature enough to understand the difference between right and wrong; they call this "dolci incapax." They also believe that when they do things, even something illegal, it is not done with criminal intent, or "mens rea." As such, in a majority of cases children at that age or younger are protected against criminal charges or prosecution.

Beyond that age, the courts in the United States will hold a person accountable for his or her actions. In most states, including Virginia, children 18 years of age or younger will be charged in the juvenile court system. For certain serious crimes however, the case may be transferred to the adult court system and the accused may face adult sentences and sent to an adult correctional facility.

For all other crimes, including allegations of underage drinking, school-related crimes, theft, or illegal "sexting" or stalking, the case will be heard in a juvenile court. In many cases, an intake officer may make alternative arrangements for the child to address the issues outside of the courtroom, such as a youth service agency or mental health facility.

If the child's case does continue to juvenile court, however, it is important for a defendant to understand the charges, understand the severity of a guilty verdict, and do whatever possible to address the charges. This often means finding a lawyer familiar with juvenile crimes to help the defendant navigate through the juvenile court system, maximizing the chance of a favorable outcome.

Source: FindLaw, "Juvenile Justice: Background," Accessed, May 2, 2017

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