Do Juvenile Cases “Count” as Criminal Convictions?

gavel in courtroom

Many people assume that if they or their child are found to be a delinquent child in juvenile court, they have been “convicted” of a criminal offense.  This creates concern when the delinquent child applies for a job or college and is asked, “Have you ever been convicted of a crime?”

The Supreme Court of Ohio, in the case of In re Anderson (2001), 92 Ohio St.3d 63, 68-70, provides a detailed explanation as to the overriding purpose of the juvenile justice system.  In the words of the Supreme Court of Ohio:

We have long held that juvenile court proceedings are civil, rather than criminal, in nature.  See Cope v. Campbell (1964), 175 Ohio St. 475, 26 O.O.2d 88, 196 N.E.2d 457, paragraph one of the syllabus, overruled on other grounds in In re Agler (1969), 19 Ohio St.2d 70, 48 O.O.2d 85, 249 N.E.2d 808.  See, also, Agler at 74, 48 O.O.2d at 87, 249 N.E.2d at 811.  To understand why this is so, it is helpful to consider the history of the juvenile justice system. [1]

The first juvenile court was established in Illinois in 1899.  D’Ambra, A Legal Response to Juvenile Crime: Why Waiver of Juvenile Offenders is Not a Panacea (1997), 2 Roger Williams U.L.Rev. 277, 280.  The early reformers were appalled by the treatment of youth in criminal courts, and they sought to put in place a separate system where the overriding concerns were the protection and rehabilitation of the child.  Id.  It was a benevolent system based on the best interests of the child, where child welfare and individual assessment and treatment were the goals.  Id.  The formation of this system was premised on the legal doctrine of parens patriae, i.e, the state, as a parent, had the duty to care for and guide these children with rehabilitation as the ultimate goal.  Bell, Ohio Gets Tough on Juvenile Crime: An Analysis of Ohio’s 1996 Amendments Concerning the Bindover of Violent Juvenile Offenders to the Adult System and Related Legislation (1997), 66 U.Cin.L.Rev. 207, 209.

The juvenile court movement reformers “designed an institution that departed from the traditional criminal court of law in almost every respect.”  Rossum, Holding Juveniles Accountable: Reforming America’s “Juvenile Injustice System” (1995), 22 Pepperdine L.Rev. 907, 911.  Because reformers “assumed that the interests of the state, delinquent children, and their families were identical, they eliminated the adversarial atmosphere of criminal courts.”  Id.  “They replaced the cold, objective standards of criminal procedures with informal procedures.”  Id.  A specialized vocabulary was developed.  “Criminal complaints” gave way to “delinquency petitions.” Instead of “trials,” “hearings” were held.  Juveniles were not given “sentences”; they received “dispositions.”  Juveniles were not “found guilty”; they were “adjudicated delinquent.”  Id. at 912.

Other differences included excluding the public from juvenile hearings to protect children from the public stigma of criminal prosecution and giving judges broad discretion to adjudicate delinquency and to set dispositions.  Id.  Again, “[t]he principle underlying [this] system was to combine flexible decision-making with individualized intervention to treat and rehabilitate offenders rather than to punish offenses.”  Id.


In In re Caldwell (1996), 76 Ohio St.3d 156, 157, 666 N.E.2d 1367, 1368, we summarized the purpose of R.C. 2151.01: “to provide for the care, protection, and mental and physical development of children to protect the public from the wrongful acts committed by juvenile delinquents and to rehabilitate errant children and bring them back to productive citizenship, or, as the statute states, to supervise, care for and rehabilitate those children.  Punishment is not the goal of the juvenile system, except as necessary to direct the child toward the goal of rehabilitation.” [2] See also, Juv.R. 1(B)(3) and (4).

Thus, from their inception, juvenile courts existed as civil, not criminal, courts. The basic therapeutic mission of these courts continues to this day. Therefore, we hold that a juvenile court proceeding is a civil action.

Of course, there are situations in which a juvenile’s case may be transferred to “adult court” for prosecution, and that juvenile may be deemed to be “convicted” of a crime.

If you have any questions or concerns as to whether your or your child’s juvenile delinquency cases constitute a criminal conviction and the impact this may have on completing employment and college applications, contact an experienced attorney at Horwitz & Horwitz today.