Introduction to Juvenile Justice in Virginia

What is a juvenile?

In Virginia, a juvenile is defined as any person less than 18 years of age.

What is the juvenile justice system?

The juvenile justice system is a special part of the larger justice system that deals with matters related to juveniles and has its own set of laws and procedures that govern how juveniles are treated. The “system” includes not only Juvenile and Domestic Relations (J & DR) District Courts but also law enforcement, detention facilities, programs that serve juvenile offenders, and juvenile correctional facilities.

The Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) has primary responsibility for Virginia’s system of juvenile justice services. Within each Virginia community, DJJ works with law enforcement officers, mental health services providers, schools, social services, and other agencies to meet the needs of juvenile offenders, their families, and communities.

Why is there a juvenile justice system?

There is a juvenile justice system that treats juveniles differently than adults because our society believes juveniles are different from adults, both in terms of level of responsibility and potential for rehabilitation. Although there is concern with public safety and holding juvenile offenders accountable for their actions, there is greater emphasis on rehabilitation than on punishment in the juvenile justice system. “Rehabilitation” means to restore someone to a useful life through therapy and education. For example, a juvenile who commits an offense may be required to participate in counseling or a program to help him or her make better decisions in the future.

In which ways does the juvenile justice system differ from the adult system?

There are many differences between the two systems. One of the first differences is in the language that is used in juvenile courts. Here is a comparison of some of the most common terms:

Juvenile Justice Terms

Adult Justice Terms



Take into custody



File charges

Adjudicatory hearing


Found delinquent

Found guilty







Other terms used in the Virginia juvenile justice system include the following:

  • A delinquent is a juvenile who has committed an act which would be a crime if committed by an adult.

  • A status offender is a juvenile who has committed certain actions prohibited by law which, if committed by adults, would not be considered criminal offenses– such as curfew violations.

  • A child in need of supervision is one who is truant or runs away from home.

  • A child in need of services means a juvenile whose behavior, conduct, or condition presents or results in a serious threat to himself or another person and the child is in need of treatment, rehabilitation, or services and is not receiving them.

What are the steps in the juvenile justice process in Virginia?

  1. The juvenile enters the system when an offense is committed and reported by a parent, citizen, agency, or the police. For some offenses, such as minor traffic violations, law enforcement officers may issue a summons to court rather than going through the intake process.
  1. At juvenile court intake, the intake officer is authorized to (a) take informal action, or (b) take formal action and file a petition.
  1. Informal actions that an intake officer may take include referral to a crisis shelter, counseling, or other action to “divert” the case from the juvenile justice system. “Divert” means to turn aside by taking another route. Diversion is sometimes used for first offenses and may involve the juvenile and his or her parents attending an educational program offered through the court.
  1. If the intake officer decides to take formal action and file a petition, the intake officer will also determine whether the juvenile should be detained or released to his or her parents or guardians. The decision is based on the juvenile’s risk to self or community and risk of flight.
  1. If the decision is made to detain the juvenile, a detention hearing is held within 72 hours in the J & DR District Court to determine the need for further detention.
  1. At the adjudicatory hearing, witnesses and testimony are presented similar to an adult trial and the judge decides whether the juvenile is guilty. If the juvenile is found not guilty, the case is dismissed. If the juvenile is found guilty, a dispositional hearing is held. Frequently, judges order a pre-disposition report to be prepared to assist in determining an appropriate disposition. The pre-disposition report contains extensive background information about the juvenile, his or her family and community environment, his or her school record, and services he or she may need.
  1. At the dispositional hearing, the judge decides appropriate sanctions and services. “Sanction” means a penalty for not complying with a law or other rule. The judge may impose community sanctions such as warnings, restitution, or fines. The juvenile may also be placed on probation, required to participate in programs sponsored by the court or community agencies, or placed in post-dispositional detention.

    Once the requirements have been met, the juvenile is released by the court. The judge may also decide to commit the juvenile to the Department of Juvenile Justice, where he or she will undergo psychological, educational, social, and medical evaluations and be placed in a residential facility or a juvenile correctional center. Juveniles who complete their commitment and return to their home communities are usually supervised by the court.

  2. A case may be sent into the appeals process following the dispositional hearing. The Circuit Court may also receive a case through direct indictment.

What is a juvenile court intake officer?

A juvenile court intake officer receives and reviews complaints to the juvenile court and determines whether there are enough facts to involve the court. These officers are authorized to handle cases informally or they may authorize filing a petition to bring the matter before the judge. They are also authorized to detain juveniles when necessary.

What is detention?

Detention involves physically restraining or confining an individual. In Virginia, a judge, intake officer, or magistrate may detain a juvenile for reasons prescribed by law. Detention is most often used to hold a juvenile pending a hearing. Juveniles are typically held in detention centers in Virginia.

When can someone be detained? 

A judge, intake officer, or magistrate must find probable cause that the juvenile committed a serious crime or violated conditions of his or her probation or parole and that there is clear and convincing evidence that:

  • releasing the juvenile would be a clear and substantial threat to the person or property of others, or

  • releasing the juvenile presents a clear and substantial threat of serious harm to the juvenile's life or health, or

  • the juvenile has threatened to run away or has a record of failing to appear at court hearings within the prior year, or

  • the juvenile has escaped from a detention facility, or

  • the juvenile is a fugitive from another state, or

  • the juvenile has previously failed to appear in court.

What is a detention center?

Detention centers, sometimes called detention homes, are places in the community where delinquents are held temporarily in secure custody pending court hearings. While at a detention center, detainees participate in structured programs, including school and recreational activities. Detained juveniles also receive medical and mental health screening and services, may participate in religious activities, and may have structured visits with parents or guardians. Detention is used to ensure juveniles are present for court, without harming themselves or others while awaiting a court date.

Under certain circumstances, a judge may sentence a juvenile to a detention center for up to 180 days as a sanction after the juvenile is found guilty of an offense. Juveniles placed in postdispositional detention programs are provided separate services for their rehabilitation. These services are designed to meet the individual juvenile’s needs and may include mental health and social services.

What is an “adjudicatory” hearing?

The word “adjudicate” means to judge or pass judgment. In an adjudicatory hearing, the court hears the evidence in a case and determines whether the allegations contained in the complaint are supported by the evidence. In criminal cases, there is a determination of whether the defendant is guilty.

What is a dispositional hearing?

The word “disposition” means the manner in which a case is settled or resolved. In a dispositional hearing, the court considers and selects penalties and services appropriate for an offender. It is important to remember that the juvenile justice system is concerned not only with punishment, but also with rehabilitation. For example, a court may not only place an offender on probation and order restitution, but also order him or her to participate in counseling or another program to address problems that contributed to his or her getting in trouble.

What is restitution?

“Restitution” describes the act of restoration. It means an offender is required to repay money to the victim or take other action to “restore” the victim to his or her status before the criminal act. For example, someone who destroys the property of another may be required to pay the cost of repair or replacement, such as when a school building has been vandalized. The basic purpose of restitution is to achieve fairness.

What does probation mean?

Probation means the offender is allowed a period of time to show he or she has learned from his or her mistakes and can behave. During this period, offenders are supervised by the court, obey rules of probation, and report to a probation officer who closely monitors conduct. If an offender abides by conditions, he or she is released from probation. If an offender does not abide by conditions, he or she may be brought before a judge, who may impose more severe penalties.

If someone is found to be delinquent, what can happen?

A very broad range of dispositions are authorized in Virginia law when a juvenile is found to be delinquent. (Code of Virginia § 16.1-278.8). Depending on the circumstances, a juvenile court may:

  • defer disposition and dismiss the charge if the juvenile behaves;

  • impose conditions and limitations on the juvenile and his or her parents;

  • order the juvenile and/or parents to participate in programs and/or treatment;

  • place the juvenile in custody of the Department of Juvenile Justice to attend a boot camp or other juvenile correctional facility;

  • place the juvenile in a local detention home;

  • place the juvenile on probation under conditions prescribed by the court;

  • impose a fine of up to $500;

  • suspend the juvenile’s driver’s license or delay issuing it;

  • require the juvenile to make restitution for damages;

  • require the juvenile to participate in community service; and/or

  • transfer legal custody to a relative, a child welfare agency, or a local board of social services.

What is a juvenile correctional center?

A juvenile correctional center is a place where a juvenile committed to the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice receives 24-hour supervision, education, treatment services, recreational services, and a variety of special programs.

Are there other consequences for committing a crime?

There are many other consequences that are sometimes not recognized until later. In addition to penalties imposed by the court, juveniles who break the law may:

  • embarrass their families and friends;

  • have driving privileges suspended or delayed;

  • be disqualified from receiving awards or scholarships;

  • not be accepted at their colleges of choice;

  • not be able to enlist in the armed services; and/or

  • lose the opportunity to hold certain jobs.

Can a juvenile be sent to an adult court?

Yes. A case may be transferred to Circuit Court when a juvenile 14 years of age or older is alleged to have committed a felony and it is decided the juvenile should be tried as an adult. For this to occur, a transfer hearing is held in juvenile court and the judge determines whether the juvenile meets criteria for transfer set forth in § 16.1-269.1 of the Code of Virginia. In cases involving more serious offenses such as murder, rape, robbery, malicious wounding, carjacking or certain drug offenses, if the prosecutor notifies the juvenile and his/her attorney that they intend to try the juvenile as an adult, and probable cause is shown at the preliminary hearing, the juvenile’s charges are automatically certified to the circuit court for trial as an adult.

What are teen courts?

Teen courts, also known as youth or peer courts, are juvenile prevention and intervention programs that are becoming popular as an alternative option for young, usually first-time juvenile offenders.

Teen courts are not mentioned in Virginia law.

Typically, young offenders are offered teen court as a voluntary alternative to the traditional juvenile justice system. In teen courts, juveniles charged with an offense can forgo the formal hearing and sentencing procedures of juvenile courts and participate in a sentencing forum made up of a jury of their peers. These courts work in different ways, depending on the model of teen courts used.

Can someone’s juvenile court record follow them?

In most cases, the records are automatically destroyed once the juvenile has turned 19 and five years have passed since the last hearing in his or her case. However, for crimes that would be felonies if committed by an adult, the records remain public just as an adult conviction would. (Code of Virginia § 16.1-305 (B1)) In addition, if the juvenile committed an "ancillary offense" along with the delinquent act -- that is, an offense related to the act -- it may also stay on the juvenile's record. For example, if Tom intimidated Gary into giving him his Nintendo DS (robbery, which is a felony) by threatening him with a butterfly knife he brought onto school property (which is a Class 1 misdemeanor), the misdemeanor possession of the butterfly knife would be an ancillary offense to the felony offense of robbery, and could stay on the juvenile's record. (Code of Virginia § 16.1-306 (B))

The term “expungement” means records of a case are destroyed. In cases where the juvenile is found not guilty or the case is otherwise dismissed, the person may ask to have the records of the case destroyed. The request must be granted unless the Commonwealth’s Attorney shows good cause why the records should be retained.

Once records have been destroyed, “the violation of law shall be treated as if it never occurred.” Virginia law requires the court and all law enforcement agencies, if asked, to say that there is no record and permits the person to say that he or she has no record. (Code of Virginia § 16.1-306)

Additional Information

About Virginia's Juvenile Justice System
Visit the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice and the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services' Juvenile Services web pages.

Visit the Legislative Services web site for the Virginia State Crime Commission Report to the General Assembly, House Document No. 12, Study of Virginia's Juvenile Justice System, Richmond (2009).

About Virginia's Court Service Units
Visit the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice web site.

About Youth Courts

Visit the National Youth Court Center web site.