Juvenile theft, a crime committed by persons below 18 years of age (true for most states, except New York and North Carolina) is tried in a juvenile court, not in a criminal court for adults. If your child has been caught stealing, he will be charged with a crime, but will be considered a juvenile delinquent, not an adult criminal. As a parent, you should be familiar with the law on juvenile crime in your state because even petty theft, which is typically a misdemeanor, can affect your child’s chances of getting into a college or university, finding employment, applying for credit and even renting an apartment.

Further, almost all states have laws that bestow liability on parents whose children have committed a crime. It should be noted, however, that there are serious cases where a child can be tried in an adult criminal court and sentenced as an adult.

Stolen bike

For petty theft, the juvenile offender cannot be convicted of a crime but will still face charges from the probation officer. Theft laws vary by state. In California, for example, shoplifting is a separate offense and is a form of petty theft if the merchandise stolen is worth $950 or less. If your child has been caught shoplifting and is arrested, he or she could avoid a filing and be sent home or get an informal probation that, upon successful completion, could get the shoplifting charge dismissed. The probation department could also prescribe a diversion program that includes education and counseling, lasting not more than six months.

Just because a juvenile is not tried as a criminal does not mean you can take the juvenile justice system lightly. California has a detention statute authorizing the juvenile court to put your child in a juvenile detention facility if it deems it in the best interest of the child pending a hearing.

Financial Consequences for the Parents

Other than the civil penalties that apply to shoplifting, parents may have to shoulder the following responsibilities:

  • In a juvenile shoplifting charge, you, as parents, will incur civil penalties and will be liable to the store for damages of at least $50 but not more than $500 and the retail value of the merchandise if it has been lost or damaged so that it is not sellable.
  • The court may order restitution, or payment of money, to pay the victim for any loss or damage caused by your child in a petty theft case.
  • You will have to pay for lawyer services for your child. Even if it is a juvenile crime, an experienced juvenile crime lawyer will ask the court to seal the records of your child so that he or she will have no criminal record. As stated above, when your child’s juvenile record is sealed, the chances for finding employment, getting into college, applying for a driver’s license, renting an apartment or applying for a loan will be better.
  • If your child is in juvenile hall, or detention, you will have to pay for meals and laundry.

According to the Global Youth Justice, theft and larceny (shoplifting) is number 1 of the 25 most common juvenile crimes. Although the arresting police officer has the authority and discretion to send the minor offender home to the parents, usually a shoplifting charge will require the minor to attend counseling and render community service. If lucky, successful completion of both may lead to the dismissal of the larceny charge.

Some of the common reasons why minors steal are peer pressure, the need for an item and a tight budget, and teen rebellion. The Shoplifting Prevention group says it usually isn’t a planned crime and 72 percent of juvenile shoplifters did it on impulse.

As parents, you should realize that juvenile theft is an underlying symptom of social or emotional stress caused by school, peers or family issues. It’s not helpful to feel guilty. The best thing any parent with a child caught stealing can do is to show support, avoid censure and attend classes on understanding their child’s action and helping prevent a future one.