Juvenile vs. Adult Criminal Cases: Understanding the Differences

The state of Virginia treats juvenile and criminal cases differently. Although there are several reasons for this, the primary one is that juveniles lack the judgment of adults. Therefore, the juvenile system stresses the importance of rehabilitation over punishment. In this article, we examine the differences between juvenile and criminal cases in Virginia. 

Rehabilitation vs. Punishment

Adult charges in Virginia are punitive in nature, while juvenile charges are rehabilitative. In other words, the adult criminal justice system is intended to punish offenders, while the juvenile criminal justice system is intended to rehabilitate them. However, this does not mean that juvenile criminal charges should be taken lightly. Rather, any juvenile facing criminal charges should seek the assistance of an experienced criminal defense attorney immediately. 

Virginia’s Juvenile Justice System

Virginia’s juvenile justice system is overseen by the Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ). The DJJ has its own courts, law enforcement officials, and detention facilities. There are several ways in which the DJJ separates itself from the state’s adult criminal justice system. For example, rather than calling criminal acts by juveniles “crimes,” the DJJ calls them “offenses.” And instead of holding “trials,” the DJJ holds “adjudicatory hearings.” Finally, rather than finding a juvenile offender “guilty” of a criminal act, it uses the term “delinquent.” 

The Juvenile Justice Intake Process

When criminal allegations are made against a juvenile, the DJJ assigns an intake officer to the case. 

This officer has the authority to recommend alternatives to prosecution, such as participation in counseling. Intake officers often do this for first-time offenders.

However, in some situations, an intake officer may decide to pursue formal action. In such cases, the officer files a petition and determines whether to detain the juvenile or release the juvenile to his or her parents or guardians. If the intake officer decides to detain the juvenile, the DJJ must hold a hearing within 72 hours to determine if further detention is necessary.


The next step in the Virginia juvenile justice system is an adjudicatory hearing. An adjudicatory hearing is conducted similarly to a trial in adult criminal court. During this hearing, both sides are permitted to present evidence, and the court renders a verdict. If the court determines that the juvenile is guilty, then it holds a dispositional hearing. This hearing is designed to help the court determine the appropriate sanction in the case. Examples of common juvenile sanctions include community service, a warning, probation, restitution, or further detention. 

Contact a Virginia Criminal Defense Lawyer 

If your child is facing criminal charges in the state of Virginia, you need an experienced criminal defense attorney in your corner. At Walker Jones, PC, our criminal defense lawyers have years of experience aggressively defending juvenile and adult defendants in Virginia. So, when you come to us for help, we will devise a case strategy and aggressively defend your child against his or her charges. Please contact us to arrange a free initial consultation with an experienced criminal defense lawyer. 

Posted in: Criminal Defense