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A juvenile delinquent is a person who commits a crime while having not yet reached the legal age of adulthood. The age that divides juvenile delinquents from adult ones may vary from region to region. Typically, juvenile offenders are tried in different courts and subject to different penalties than adult criminals, but in some circumstances, serious crimes or crimes committed shortly before reaching the age of adulthood may result in the delinquent being charged as an adult.
There are many theories as to why children commit crimes. According to legal statistics, a juvenile delinquent is more likely to develop when the child has been physically or verbally abused or neglected. Other contributing causes may be poverty and connection with local gangs. However many juvenile offenders also come from stable families with adequate income, leading some to believe that genetics may be a factor as well.
Some experts suggest that undiagnosed or mismanaged mental illness can be a factor in juvenile crime. For this reason, courts often order a psychological evaluation on the offender, to determine if a possible mental disability could be interfering with the child's ability to understand legal from illegal. Judges may also order or recommend therapy and counseling for both the offender and his or her family as part of a sentence.
Crimes committed by a juvenile delinquent can run the gamut from shoplifting gum to murder. Often, in misdemeanor cases, courts focus on rehabilitation rather than jail time, in recognition of the need for the offender to better understand legal and ethical behavior. Children who successfully complete court programs, such as therapy or community service, may have their criminal records expunged when reaching the age of adulthood.
For serious crimes, such as murder, violence, or sexual assault, penalties for a juvenile delinquent can be quite severe. In some areas, it is legal to try teenagers as adults for certain crimes, leading to jail sentences that may include life in prison. In these cases, the threat to society posed by the criminal is so great, rehabilitation is judged to be extremely unlikely.
Preventing juvenile delinquency and properly rehabilitating young offenders is a major concern for many societies. Studies have shown that repeat adult offenders often have a record of juvenile delinquency; proper treatment and attention may be vital to preventing future crimes of a juvenile delinquent. Although there is no cure-all action for young criminals, some experts suggest that certain social programs may help prevent crime. Drug and gang prevention programs, supervised after school activities, and even instilling an early love of education may help prevent children from becoming criminals.