Juvenile Justice in Virginia

What is “juvenile law?”

“Juvenile law” is the area of law that deals with criminal law involving persons not old enough to be held responsible for criminal acts. In Virginia, as in most other states, the age for criminal culpability is set at 18 years; anyone less than 18 years of age is defined as a “juvenile.”

Most laws governing juveniles are contained in Code of Virginia, Title 16.1.

It is important to understand that the main goal of the juvenile justice system is rehabilitation rather than punishment.

How is the juvenile justice system organized in Virginia?

The juvenile justice system in Virginia 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.

Reportable Offense

More in-depth information about J&DR Courts is provided in a fact sheet -- Info on Virginia Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court (PDF doc) -- from the Virginia Supreme Court. Links to the web pages of local J&DR courts throughout Virginia can be found on the Virginia Supreme Court website.

At the state level, the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) has primary responsibility for Virginia’s system of juvenile justice services. Additional information on DJJ programs and services is available on the DJJ website.

At the local level, contact with the juvenile justice system typically is through the local court service unit (CSU), sometimes called “juvenile probation” departments. Thirty-five CSUs serve the Judicial Districts throughout Virginia. Descriptions and contact information for each of the 35 CSUs can be found on the DJJ website.

Essential functions of the CSU throughout the Commonwealth include:

Juvenile Intake -- Intake services are provided 24 hours a day at each of the 35 court service units (CSUs) across the state. The intake officer on duty, or on call after business hours, has the authority to receive, review, and process complaints. Based on the information gathered, a determination is made as to whether a petition should be filed with the juvenile court and, if so, whether the juvenile should be released to the parents or detained pending a court hearing. The agency provides diversion and referral to other community resources to first-time offenders.

Investigations and Reports -- Social histories make up the majority of the reports that CSU personnel complete. These court-ordered investigations describe the social adjustment of the youth before the court and provide timely, relevant, and accurate data. This information helps the court select the most appropriate disposition for the case and provides the basis for the CSU to develop appropriate services for the juvenile and the family. Other reports and investigations completed by CSU personnel include case summaries to the Family Assessment and Planning Teams, commitment packets for the Reception and Diagnostic Center, interstate compact reports, transfer reports, parole transition reports, ongoing case documentation, and transitional services referral packets.

Domestic Relations -- In addition to handling delinquency and Child in Need of Service/Supervision complaints, CSUs provide intake services for domestic relations complaints. These complaints include non-support, family abuse, adjudication of custody (permanent and temporary), abuse and neglect, termination of parental rights, visitation rights, paternity, and emancipation. In some CSUs, services such as treatment referral, supervision, and counseling are provided in adult cases of domestic violence.

Custody Investigations -- Although the majority of custody investigations for the court are performed by the local Department of Social Services' staff, some CSUs also perform investigations to provide recommendations to the court on parental custody and visitation based on the best interests of the youth and defined criteria in the Virginia Code. The investigation includes an extensive review of the home environment and background of the youth's parents or caretakers, including any individuals living in the home, and the role and relationship of the parents and caretakers of the child.

Probation -- The most frequently used disposition for those juveniles adjudicated guilty of a charge filed against them is probation supervision. Virginia juvenile probation strives to achieve a "balanced approach." This approach focuses on the principles of community protection (public safety), accountability, and competency development.

Parole Services -- Upon release from the Department's JCCs or private placement, offenders are provided parole services to assist in the transition back to the community. Parole officers are assigned to offenders to provide case management services, broker appropriate transitional services, and monitor the offender's adjustment to the communities. Juveniles may receive family and individual counseling, referral to other community services, vocational services, or specialized educational services.

What is the procedure for re-enrollment of students who have been in juvenile correctional facilities?

The Code of Virginia through § 22.1-17.1 establishes the responsibility of the Board of Education, in cooperation with the Board of Correctional Education, to promulgate regulations for the re-enrollment in the public schools of youth who have been in the custody of the Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ). These regulations for re-enrollment provide a procedure for re-enrollment of students when they have been in the custody of the juvenile justice system and receiving instruction through local and regional detention homes and the Department of Correctional Education. The regulations promote the exchange of educational information concerning students among the Departments of Juvenile Justice and Correctional Education (DCE), local and regional detention homes, and local education agencies (LEAs).

The regulations are intended to:

  • create a positive impact on the family, the students, court services, school divisions, and correctional centers, as they are seeking to continue the students' education upon his or her release from a juvenile correction center;
  • provide for the coordinated transfer of information by court services, school divisions, detention homes, and correctional centers in order to afford students timely involvement in appropriate educational programs; and
  • enhance communication, cooperation, and coordination of services among the public systems required to provide for the educational needs of juvenile parolees.

The procedures for the re-enrollment process, timelines, and FAQs for various audiences are set forth on the Virginia Department of Education's website in the following documents:

Reportable Offense

How does the juvenile justice process operate in Virginia?

Shown below is a flowchart of the juvenile justice process in Virginia (click to enlarge):

Juvenile Court Process in Virginia

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.

  2. At juvenile court intake, the intake officer is authorized to (a) take informal action, or (b) take formal action and file a petition.

  3. Informal actions 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. A preliminary hearing is held to ensure the case has enough merit to continue. If no probable cause exists, the case is dismissed. If cause is determined, the case moves to the adjudicatory hearing.

  7. Also during this preliminary phase, a transfer hearing may be held to decide whether a case should be transferred to Circuit Court for trial. Transfer may occur when a juvenile, 14 years of age or older, is alleged to have committed an especially serious crime and it is decided the juvenile should be tried as an adult.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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 a locked facility. 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 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 post-dispositional 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 is 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:

  1. defer disposition and dismiss the charge if the juvenile behaves;
  2. impose conditions and limitations on the juvenile and his or her parents;
  3. order the juvenile and/or parents to participate in programs and/or treatment;
  4. place the juvenile in custody of the Department of Juvenile Justice to attend a boot camp or other juvenile correctional facility;
  5. place the juvenile in a local detention home;
  6. place the juvenile on probation under conditions prescribed by the court;
  7. impose a fine of up to $500;
  8. suspend the juvenile’s driver’s license or delay issuing it;
  9. require the juvenile to make restitution for damages;
  10. require the juvenile to participate in community service; and/or
  11. 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.

Descriptions of each of Virginia’s correctional centers can be found on the DJJ website.

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:

  1. embarrass their families and friends;
  2. have driving privileges suspended or delayed;
  3. be disqualified from receiving awards or scholarships;
  4. not be accepted at their colleges of choice;
  5. not be able to enlist in the armed services; and/or
  6. lose the opportunity to hold certain jobs.

Can someone’s juvenile court record be sealed or destroyed?

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. For crimes that would be felonies if committed by an adult, the records remain public just as an adult conviction would (Code of Virginia § 16.1-305B1).

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.)

Under what circumstances can a juvenile be tried as an adult?

If a juvenile is 14 years or older and charged with a felony offense, the Commonwealth may ask the juvenile court to transfer the case to the circuit court for trial as an adult. In most cases, the transfer decision is within the discretion of the court after considering the juvenile’s age, the seriousness and number of offenses, his prior record with the court, whether he has previously escaped, any degree of mental impairment, his school record and his mental, emotional and physical maturity. If the court decides that the juvenile can best be treated in the juvenile system, it can deny the transfer.

Commonwealth’s Attorneys have the discretion to transfer juveniles charged with violations of certain gang offenses and repeat violations of certain drug offenses to the circuit court for trial as an adult.  Also, juveniles charged with an offense defined as an act of violence, if previously adjudicated delinquent of an act of violence, are automatically transferred to the circuit court for trial as an adult.

However, if the charge is murder or aggravated malicious wounding, the court must transfer the case for trial as an adult. If the charge is one of several enumerated violent felonies, the discretion to transfer the case lies solely with the Commonwealth’s Attorney.

Where a transfer is made, the juvenile court makes a determination of probable cause and if probable cause is found, the matter is certified to the grand jury for indictment.

See Code of Virginia § 16.1-269.1.

What do the terms “Child in Need of Supervision” and “Child in Need of Services” mean?

A Child in Need of Services is a child whose behavior, conduct, or condition poses a risk of harm to himself or another person. A child who is alleged to be abused or neglected is typically considered a child in need of services.

A Child in Need of Supervision is a child who is habitually absent from school (truant) or who abandons his family or guardian (runaway) in a manner that requires intervention by the court to protect the child's welfare.

Legal definitions of these terms are found in Code of Virginia § 16.1-228.

VDOE Discipline, Crime and Violence Definitions

The Virginia Department of Education updates DCV Definitions annually.

For more information on reporting, visit VDOE's School Safety section.

Code of Virginia

The Virginia General Assembly has posted the entire Code of Virginia online for web searching. You can perform a search by using key word(s), phrases or section numbers. You can also use the Table of Contents to view all Titles, Chapters, and Sections.

To explore the searchable Code of Virginia, go to the Virginia General Assembly Legislative Information System (LIS).