Can Middle School Kids Go to Jail?

Adults and teenagers aren’t the only ones who commit crimes. Not many people know what happens to a middle schooler who breaks the law.

Middle school kids can go to jail. The minimum age of prosecution is 8-13 years old depending on the state. Minors typically receive reduced jail sentences and are sent to juvenile detention. However, some teenagers are tried as adults, receiving full sentences and going to adult prisons.

Minors typically have a different experience in being prosecuted than adults. There is more to learn about the prosecution of juveniles.

Juvenile Prosecution

About 696,620 juveniles were arrested in 2019. The most common juvenile crimes were simple assault, property crime, and traffic related crimes. The least common juvenile crimes were gambling, prostitution, and vagrancy. There were 44,010 violent crimes committed.

Twenty-four states have a minimum age for being convicted of a crime. This minimum age ranges from 8-13 years old, with 10 being the most common minimum age. This minimum age usually does not protect those who commit violent crimes such as murder, sexual assault, kidnapping, etc.

Juvenile court doesn’t just involve cases where a juvenile is being prosecuted. Cases of dependency and protection are also often done in juvenile court. These are cases where a juvenile is being abused or neglected, and the judge will decide whether to remove the juvenile from their parent’s care. Most of the cases in juvenile court are minor, involving skipping curfew, alcohol possession, or disorderly conduct. Violent crimes are typically not prosecuted in juvenile court, but in criminal court.


After conviction, the sentences for juvenile delinquents are usually very different from the sentences for adults. For examples, incarceration often doesn’t happen in prison facilities. Juveniles can be placed under house arrest, meaning they cannot leave the house except for attending school, work, counseling, etc. They can also be placed with a relative or in a group or foster home. You may have heard of juvenile detention, but unlike what many people believe, juvenile detention is only for short term stays; juveniles will often stay there between arrest and sentencing. There are correctional facilities for long-term stays.

Many crimes are punished with something other than incarceration. It can be as small as a verbal reprimand. Juveniles may also be required to attend counseling or complete community service hours. They also may be fined, required to wear an ankle monitor, or put on probation.

Most sentences for juveniles are meant to help them be rehabilitated rather than to punish them for a crime. That is why sentences such as counseling or community service are common. The court wants to help the juvenile to become better and learn from their mistakes rather than to punish them.

Juvenile Detention

Many people believe that juvenile detention is just prison for juveniles, but it is not. Juvenile detention is where juvenile delinquents are incarcerated for short periods of time. They are often there between being arrested and being sentenced by the court. Some juveniles are also sentenced to a few months in juvenile detention before being released on probation. There are 625 juvenile detention facilities in the United States. When a juvenile is incarcerated for a long period of time, it is usually at a juvenile correctional facility, which are fewer. Many crimes that are punished with long incarcerations are transferred to criminal court.

Juveniles in juveniles detention are lawfully entitled to the right of due process (they can’t be subjected to punishment before being sentenced), freedom from cruel and unusual punishment (they need to be provided with adequate food, shelter, safety, education, healthcare, etc.), the right to equal protection (they can’t be discriminated against because of race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.), the right to free speech, the right to exercise religion, and the right to counsel (they are allowed to meet with their attorney).

Tried as an Adult

Anyone younger than 17 is usually tried as a juvenile, which means shorter sentences in juvenile detention. However, in some circumstances, someone younger than 17 can be tried as an adult. A judge in juvenile court has the power to transfer any case to adult/criminal court, and a prosecutor (the person charging them of a crime) can request that the case be transferred as well. The seriousness of the crime, the age of the juvenile, and the criminal record. Violent crimes are often transferred to criminal court.

In some states, certain crimes are also required by law to be transferred to criminal court. Murder, assault, and other violent crimes may be required to be tried in a criminal court. In other states, both the juvenile and criminal courts have jurisdiction over violent crimes, so the prosecution is allowed to decide whether the case should be in juvenile or criminal court.

Some states allow the defendant (juvenile being charged with the crime) to petition to have the case sent back to juvenile court. A young defendant with no criminal record is more likely to have their case transferred back to criminal court.

Some minor crimes–such as traffic violations, possession of alcohol, etc–are also taken in criminal court because those crimes don’t involve jail time.

Juvenile court and criminal court are very different. An adult is accused of a crime, but a juvenile is accused of a delinquent act. Juvenile courts do not typically have juries. This is because there are confidentiality laws when dealing with a juvenile, and having a jury would violate those. Juvenile courts are also more lenient about the submission of evidence than criminal courts. Juvenile courts are also less concerned with the punishment of the defendant, and more concerned with rehabilitation. That is why many juveniles are sentenced to counseling, community service, or restitution.

Criminal and juvenile courts are similar in that defendants have many of the same rights. Both adults and juveniles have the right to an attorney, the right to cross examine and confront witnesses, the right not to incriminate yourself, the right to know the charges against you, and the prosecution has to prove the charges against you beyond a shadow of a doubt.