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Will a juvenile conviction ruin my future?

Mistakes made during our youth can sometimes impact our future. Immediate consequences of a juvenile conviction can include the suspension of driving privileges and required time in a juvenile detention center. A conviction can also impact schooling during the service of a detention sentence and, sometimes, even after being released from detention. It is not uncommon for schools to have policies that make it difficult to re-enroll after time spent at a detention center or to have policies that forbid students from re-enrolling if they have a history of certain offenses. Finally, these hurdles sometimes cause issues when attempting to gain admission into college or apprenticeship programs.

Even those who chose to bypass a two- or four-year degree program and focus on entering the workforce after high school can face difficulty as employers may turn away applicants with a criminal history.

With this information in mind, it is important for juveniles and their parents to take the long-term consequences into account when dealing with accusations of criminal wrongdoing. It is often tempting for young people to look for the easiest or quickest resolution but blindly entering into a plea bargain or pleading guilty to a serious offense in an effort to move on with one’s life is generally a poor idea. This route can, and often does, lead to larger and more complicated issues upon reaching adulthood.

How can juveniles reduce the impact of a poor choice on their entire future?

First, it is important to have a basic understanding of how the juvenile justice process works in your state. In Virginia, the process begins when parents, citizens, agencies or police report an offense and a “petition” is filed with the juvenile court. Once this occurs, an intake officer will make the initial determination whether to detain the juvenile or release them to the custody their parents or guardians. If the juvenile is detained, a hearing is scheduled shortly thereafter before a judge wherein the judge can either confirm or alter the determination of the intake officer. If the juvenile is detained, a trial (even for juvenile felony offenses) must normally take place within 21 days. If the juvenile is released to the custody of an adult, the “21-day” rule does not apply.

Once a trial date is scheduled, the juvenile’s trial will proceed much like that of an adult. Although juvenile courts have authority to hear both juvenile misdemeanors and felonies, the trial in a juvenile court is presided over by the judge who decides not only whether the juvenile is guilty, but also what the appropriate sentence is if the juvenile is convicted.  Juvenile court judges have a broad array of penalties that they can be impose. Juveniles can be remanded to probation, required to complete community service, have their license to drive suspended, detained in a juvenile “jail” and, in extreme situations, committed to the Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ). Commitments are the equivalent of the juvenile being sent to a juvenile “prison” are normally only used for the most egregious juvenile offenders.

Don’t criminal records disappear once the juvenile becomes an adult?

Many people are under the impression that juvenile records are wiped out once the juvenile becomes an adult, however, this is not altogether true.  For juvenile misdemeanors, a conviction can remain on the juveniles’ record until the juvenile turns 19 and five years have passed since the last hearing in the case. For a juvenile felony conviction, the felony will remain on the juvenile’s record until they are 29 years old. Further, a juvenile felony conviction will make it illegal for the juvenile to purchase, possess or transport a firearm until they are at least 29 years old. This means, of course, that hunting is out of the question for juvenile felons until they are nearly into their thirties. In addition, a conviction for a juvenile sex offense can sometimes require the juvenile to register as a sex offender well into their adult years. In short, the idea that a juvenile conviction does not follow you into adulthood is a myth.

Finally, it is important for parents and juveniles to understand that Virginia allows for juvenile offenders over the age of 14 to be tried as an adult for certain felony offenses. This decision is often left to the discretion of the judges, however, for extremely violent offenses, the judges may be required to classify the juvenile as an adult at the request of the prosecutor. Once a juvenile is tried as an adult, they legally become an adult for any subsequent offenses committed while under the age of 18.

Juveniles and their parents can and should take proactive steps throughout this process to ensure that their legal rights are protected. With the help of an experienced attorney, evidence may be gathered that can help establish the juvenile’s innocence at trial or, if a defense is not tenable, to help negotiate a better plea bargain with the prosecutor. Finally, an experienced attorney can counsel juveniles and their parents regarding available options for appeal if something goes wrong during the case.