In the state of Illinois, a person under the age of 16 is considered a juvenile. In addition to an upper age limit, the juvenile justice system also sets a lower age limit. In most jurisdictions, the lower age is set at six or seven. This is because young children are not capable of criminal intent, also known as mens rea. Additionally, young children are not able to distinguish right from wrong, or dolci incapax, in legal terms. If a young person allegedly commits a juvenile crime, it is important in the perspective of the legal system whether or not the person is considered an adult or a juvenile.
For example, a juvenile who is found guilty of certain offenses may not have a criminal record once he or she reaches the age of 21. On the other hand, an adult who is convicted of similar offenses may have a permanent criminal record. Some criminologists have criticized the practice of setting a specific age as a determination of adulthood. This is because people become mature at different rates. Juvenile court judges are allowed to use their own discretion to push juveniles to adult court.
When a teenager is charged with a serious offense, his or her future may be at stake. It will make a significant difference in the outcome of the case whether or not the defendant is tried as an adult or a juvenile.
A criminal defense lawyer may review the case with the defendant and his or her parents and explain the implications of being tried as an adult. In addition, the lawyer may be able to work with the prosecution to have the defendant tried as a juvenile.
Source: Findlaw, "Juvenile Justice: Background", December 08, 2014