What is the Difference Between a Juvenile Defendant and a Youthful Offender?

A juvenile defendant is an individual, under the age of 18, who is facing charges within the juvenile justice system. Unlike the criminal justice system (i.e. adult court), the juvenile justice system is geared towards rehabilitation rather than punishment. Thus, the detention or incarceration of a juvenile defendant is considered a last resort. Juvenile defendants are not tried by a jury. Instead, they are tried by a judge. If convicted, a juvenile defendant is adjudicated delinquent rather than guilty. Juvenile case files are not open to the general public for review and records are often automatically expunged later in life. Clearly, for the reasons stated above, it is a lot better for an underage defendant to be tried within the juvenile justice system rather than the criminal justice system; however, that being said, juvenile defendants are still entitled to be represented by an attorney for several important reasons. First and foremost, just like a defendant in the adult system, a juvenile defendant has legal and constitutional rights that need to be protected. Additionally, juvenile charges can carry negative consequences in the future. For example, a juvenile charge can enhance the sentence of a subsequent juvenile charge or even an adult charge later in life. Also, a juvenile charge can prohibit enlistment in the armed forces.

Youthful offender is a sentencing designation given to some defendants that are under the age of 21 and facing charges within the adult criminal justice system. In order for a defendant to be sentenced as a youthful offender, the defendant must first qualify. If the defendant qualifies, a youthful offender sentence must then be approved by the state attorney (i.e. the prosecutor) and/or the sentencing judge presiding over the case.

In adult court, there are many advantages to a youthful offender sentence. First, the designation is a powerful tool that allows the court to waive mandatory minimum penalties (like the ones enumerated in the 10-20-LIFE statute). Additionally, the designation allows the court to depart from the lowest permissible sentence listed on the defendant's criminal punishment scoresheet. Lastly, if a defendant is sentenced as a youthful offender, he or she cannot receive more than a 6-year sentence for any charge, including first degree felonies.

If a defendant qualifies for a youthful offender sentence, the defendant can almost always receive the designation if the state is in agreement. However, if the offender is unable to win over the state's approval, he or she still has the opportunity to receive the designation from the sentencing judge. A judge always has the discretion to impose a youthful offender sentence if the defendant qualifies. Whether a judge utilizes his or her discretion to impose a youthful offender sentence is a different story. Convincing a judge to consider a youthful offender sentence requires a good fight from both the defendant and his lawyer, especially in cases where the state is in disagreement about the designation. Zealous representation is key and for some defendants, life changing.

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