line Introduction

This Report describes delinquency and status offense cases handled between 1987 and 1996 by U.S. courts with juvenile jurisdiction. Courts with juvenile jurisdiction may handle a variety of matters, including child abuse and neglect, traffic violations, child support, and adoptions. This Report focuses on cases involving juveniles charged with law violations (delinquency or status offenses).

Unit of Count

In measuring the activity of juvenile courts, one could count the number of offenses referred; the number of cases referred; the actual filings of offenses, cases, or petitions; the number of disposition hearings; or the number of youth handled. Each “unit of count” has its own merits and disadvantages. The unit of count used in Juvenile Court Statistics (JCS) is the number of “cases disposed.”

A “case” represents a youth processed by a juvenile court on a new referral regardless of the number of law violations contained in the referral. A youth charged with four burglaries in a single referral would represent a single case. A youth referred for three burglaries and referred again the following week on another burglary charge would represent two cases, even if the court eventually merged the two referrals for more efficient processing.

The fact that a case is “disposed” means that a definite action was taken as the result of the referral—i.e., a plan of treatment was selected or initiated. It does not mean necessarily that a case was closed or terminated in the sense that all contact between the court and the youth ceased. For example, a case is considered to be disposed when the court orders probation, not when a term of probation supervision is completed.


A basic question for this reporting series is what constitutes a referral to juvenile court. The answer partly depends on how each jurisdiction organizes its case-screening function. In many communities, all juvenile matters are first screened by an intake unit within the juvenile court. The intake unit determines whether the matter should be handled informally (i.e., diverted) or petitioned for formal handling. In data files from communities using this type of system, a delinquency or status offense case is defined as a court referral at the point of initial screening, regardless of whether it is handled formally or informally.

In other communities, the juvenile court is not involved in delinquency or status offense matters until another agency (e.g., the prosecutor’s office or a social service agency) has first screened the case. In other words, the intake function is performed outside the court, and some matters are diverted to other agencies without the court ever handling them. Status offense cases, in particular, tend to be diverted from court processing in this manner.

Since its inception, Juvenile Court Statistics has adapted to the changing structure of juvenile court processing nationwide. As court processing became more diverse, the JCS series broadened its definition of the juvenile court to incorporate other agencies that perform what can generically be considered juvenile court functions. In some communities, data collection has expanded to include departments of youth services, child welfare agencies, and prosecutors’ offices. In other communities, this expansion has not been possible. Therefore, while there is complete coverage of formally handled delinquency and status offense cases and adequate coverage of informally handled delinquency cases in the JCS series, the coverage of informally handled status offense cases is not sufficient to support the generation of national estimates. For this reason, JCS reports do not present national estimates of informally handled status offense cases. (Subnational analyses of these cases are available from the Archive.)

Juvenile Court Processing

Any attempt to describe juvenile court caseloads at the national level must be based on a generic model of court processing to serve as a common framework. In order to analyze and present data about juvenile court activities in diverse jurisdictions, the Archive strives to fit the processing characteristics of all jurisdictions into the following general model:

Intake. Referred cases are first screened by an intake department (either within or outside the court). The intake department may decide to dismiss the case for lack of legal sufficiency or to resolve the matter formally or informally. Informal (i.e., nonpetitioned) dispositions may include a voluntary referral to a social agency for services, informal probation, or the payment of fines or some form of voluntary restitution. Formally handled cases are petitioned and scheduled for an adjudicatory or waiver hearing.

Judicial Waiver. The intake department may decide that a case should be removed from juvenile court and handled instead in criminal (adult) court. In such cases, a petition is usually filed in juvenile court asking the juvenile court judge to waive jurisdiction over the case. The juvenile court judge decides whether the case merits criminal prosecution.1 When a waiver request is denied, the matter is usually scheduled for an adjudicatory hearing in the juvenile court.

Petitioning. If the intake department decides that a case should be handled formally within the juvenile court, a petition is filed and the case is placed on the court calendar (or docket) for an adjudicatory hearing. A small number of petitions are dismissed for various reasons before an adjudicatory hearing is actually held.

Adjudication. At the adjudicatory hearing, a youth may be adjudicated (judged) a delinquent or status offender, and the case would then proceed to a disposition hearing. Alternatively, a case can be dismissed or continued in contemplation of dismissal. In these cases, the court often recommends that the youth take some actions prior to the final adjudication decision, such as paying restitution or voluntarily attending drug counseling.

Disposition. At the disposition hearing, the juvenile court judge determines the most appropriate sanction, generally after reviewing a predisposition report prepared by a probation department. The range of options available to a court typically includes commitment to an institution; placement in a group or foster home or other residential facility; probation (either regular or intensive supervision); referral to an outside agency, day treatment, or mental health program; or imposition of a fine, community service, or restitution.

Detention. A youth may be placed in a detention facility at different points as a case progresses through the juvenile justice system. Detention practices also vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. A judicial decision to detain or continue detention may occur before or after adjudication or disposition. This Report includes only those detention actions that result in a youth being placed in a restrictive facility under court authority while awaiting the outcome of the court process. This Report does not include detention decisions made by law enforcement officials prior to court intake or those occurring after the disposition of a case (e.g., temporary holding of a youth in a detention facility while awaiting availability of a court-ordered placement).

Data Quality

Juvenile Court Statistics relies on the secondary analysis of data originally compiled by juvenile courts or juvenile justice agencies to meet their own information and reporting needs. As a consequence, incoming data files are not uniform across jurisdictions. However, these data files are likely to be more detailed and accurate than data files compiled by local jurisdictions merely complying with a mandated national reporting program.

The heterogeneity of the contributed data files greatly increases the complexity of the Archive’s data processing tasks. Contributing jurisdictions collect and report information using their own definitions and coding categories. Therefore, the detail reported in some data sets is not contained in others. Even when similar data elements are used, they may have inconsistent definitions or overlapping coding categories. The Archive restructures contributed data into standardized coding categories in order to combine information from multiple sources. The standardization process requires an intimate understanding of the development, structure, and content of each data set received. Codebooks and operation manuals are studied, data suppliers interviewed, and data files analyzed to maximize the understanding of each information system. Every attempt is made to ensure that only compatible information from the various data sets is used in standardized data files.

While the heterogeneity of the data adds complexity to the development of a national data file, it has proven to be valuable in other applications. The diversity of the data stored in the National Juvenile Court Data Archive enables the data to support a wider range of research efforts than would a uniform, and probably more general, data collection form. For example, the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI’s) Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program is limited by necessity to a small number of relatively broad offense codes. The UCR offense code for larceny-theft combines shoplifting with a number of other larcenies. Thus, the data are useless for studies of shoplifting. In comparison, many of the Archive’s data sets are sufficiently detailed to enable a researcher to distinguish offenses that are often combined in other reporting series—shoplifting can be distinguished from other larcenies, joyriding from motor vehicle theft, and armed robbery from unarmed robbery. The diversity of these coding structures allows researchers to construct data sets that contain the detail demanded by their research designs.

Validity of the Estimates

The national estimates presented in this Report were generated with data from a large nonprobability sample of juvenile courts. Therefore, statistical confidence in the estimates cannot be mathematically determined. Although statistical confidence would be greater if a probability sampling design were used, the cost of such an effort has long been considered prohibitive. Secondary analysis of available data is the best practical alternative for developing an understanding of the Nation’s juvenile courts.2

National estimates for 1996 are based on analyses of 894,571 individual case records from more than 1,300 courts with jurisdiction over half of the U.S. juvenile population, and aggregate court-level data on 191,495 cases from 516 jurisdictions. The weighting procedures that generate national estimates from this sample control for many factors: the size of a community; the demographic composition of its youth population; the volume of cases referred to the reporting courts; the age, sex, and race of the youth involved; the offense characteristics of the cases; the court’s response to the cases (manner of handling, detention, adjudication, and disposition); and the nature of each court’s jurisdictional responsibilities (i.e., upper age of original jurisdiction).

Structure of the Report

This Report describes the delinquency and status offense cases handled by juvenile courts between 1987 and 1996. First, the Report presents national estimates of petitioned and nonpetitioned delinquency cases handled by courts with juvenile jurisdiction. Next, national estimates of petitioned status offense cases are presented. Together, these sections provide a detailed national portrait of juvenile court cases, including the offenses involved, sources of referral, detention practices, and dispositions ordered.

A brief description of the statistical procedure used to generate these estimates can be found in the “Methods” section.

Readers are encouraged to consult the “Glossary of Terms” for definitions of key terms used throughout the Report. Few terms in the field of juvenile justice have widely accepted definitions. The terminology used in this Report has been carefully developed to communicate the findings of the work as precisely as possible without sacrificing applicability to multiple

Finally, the appendix presents a detailed list of the number of delinquency, status offense, and dependency cases handled by juvenile courts in 1996, by State and county. Table notes, at the end of the appendix, indicate the source of the data and the unit of count. Because courts report their statistical data using various units of count (e.g., cases disposed, offenses referred, petitions), the reader is cautioned against making cross-jurisdictional comparisons before studying the table notes.

Other Sources of Juvenile Court Data

The national delinquency estimates presented in this Report are also available in an easy-to-use software package, Easy Access to Juvenile Court Statistics: 1987–1996. With the support of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, NCJJ distributes this package to facilitate independent analysis of Archive data while eliminating the need for statistical analysis software. All necessary data files, as well as the NCJJ software, are available on two 3.5-inch diskettes that can be easily installed in Windows on an IBM-compatible personal computer or network. Contact the National Center for Juvenile Justice at 412–227–6950 to order a complimentary copy, or download Easy Access to Juvenile Court Statistics from OJJDP’s Web site at


Juvenile Court Statistics 1996   July 1999

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