A 15-year-old girl charged with shoplifting is in Family Court for trial testimony. A half hour was allotted by the court for today's testimony, but the court is running late and the hearing begins an hour later than the "time certain" it was scheduled for. "Where are your parents?" the judge asks the girl. "They were supposed to come to court with you today." The girl's lawyer leans in to hear her response. "Her mother is at work, Your Honor," he says, "and her father is in New Jersey." "I reminded my moms last night," the girl volunteers, "but she couldn't take off work."

"It's not like a beauty parlor appointment," the visibly frustrated judge retorts. "You can't just cancel an appointment for a trial."

But without the necessary witnesses, the trial cannot proceed. The judge barks out four sets of dates and times for the next hearing: one lawyer can't attend; another has a conflict in a nearby courtroom; the child's law advocate will be at a conference. Six minutes after court is called to order, a date is set for two months out. The girl embraces her grandmother, who was perched on a bench at the back of the courtroom. The court reporter picks up her library book as she waits for the next proceeding; the trial participants file out.

When to call it 'crime'

Part of a system both human and bureaucratic—think Franz Kafka meets Rube Goldberg at the passport office—each of New York City's five Family Court buildings contains multitudes: dozens of courtrooms; hearing and conference rooms; offices for important secondary players like adoption services and the Department of Probation; areas for public information and assistance and vast waiting zones furnished with generic linoleum tile and smooth wooden benches variously filled with parents, children, aunts and cousins, lawyers, social workers, caseworkers and mental health and medical professionals—all waiting their turn to go before a judge.

Behind the scenes, youth in detention—players in the fourth specialty of Family Court, which handles juvenile delinquency cases—wait behind closed doors in each building. As their cases are called, they are brought up various sets of interior stairs, handcuffed, before they enter the courtroom through a private door. Their wait is invisible.

What they will encounter once they pass through the door of juvenile court is different from what they'd see in a criminal courtroom.

The most significant difference between the court structures, after age, is that criminal court tends to focus more on guilt and punishment, while Family Court aims instead to rehabilitate young people by providing programs, education and support, which can include placement in youth facilities.

Family Court also comes with its own nomenclature; the vocabulary of juvenile justice reflects its separate and distinct mandate. A child of 7 to 15 years old who commits what would be recognized as a crime if committed by an adult is described as a juvenile delinquent. The act is called not a crime but a delinquent act, in recognition that children and young teens are not adults. Young teens who are found guilty of serious crimes (like sexual assault, or arson) are described as juvenile offenders. If found culpable, they receive more serious penalties than juvenile delinquents.

Statewide, about 24,000 children were arrested as juveniles in 2010, the year for which the most recent statistics are available. Half of those arrests were thrown out of court.

Of the rest, 1,300 led to placement in secure youth facilities. More than 3,600 children and youth were placed on probation and returned to the community, living with their families, in group homes or in "non-secure" state residences.

In New York City, 90 percent of criminal charges leveled against young people relate to robbery or assault. Only about 3 percent of cases involve weapons; 2 percent relate to sexual offenses, with arson and homicide each making up about 1 percent of the total. Indeed, more than half of juvenile delinquency rulings and over 90 percent of cases in which kids are placed in juvenile justice facilities relate to misdemeanors. Despite the low-level nature of the crimes being adjudicated, the annual cost for a child's stay in a secure facility exceeds $275,000—nearly 17 times the money spent per pupil in a New York City public school.

Like all crime, delinquency does not occur in isolation. More than half of all children involved with the juvenile justice system enter the system and the court with other pressing needs: 58 percent need mental health services, 56 percent have substance abuse issues, and 46 percent have been identified with special education needs. One in 12 is homeless, while 63 percent of youth with cases in the juvenile justice courtrooms (which also oversee the PINS—or persons in need of supervision—process, through which parents and guardians turn serially unruly kids over to state supervision) are black and 29 percent are Hispanic. Four in 5 children in juvenile justice cases are boys.

Tough calls for judges

A 15-year-old boy, flanked by his Legal Aid lawyer, stands at a conference table on the left side of the courtroom. He hitches up his jeans with his left hand as he raises his right and swears to tell the truth. No family or friends are in court with him; the visitors' bench in the gallery, behind a low railing, is empty. His lawyer tells the judge that his grandmother and brother are "on their way" to court—but the hearing began an hour later than scheduled, and their whereabouts are unknown.

The hearing at hand is to assess the boy's progress as part of his juvenile delinquency case; the judge says she is pleased with a positive report from the group home where the boy is placed, saying that he can be "argumentative" but that "given time to reflect, he moderates his behavior." The boy, now seated, straightens his shoulders a bit. He does not speak.

The boy's Legal Aid lawyer says his client wants to go home. But the lawyer across the courtroom, a city Corporation Counsel serving as prosecutor, says the boy's mother does not want him to return—and that no extended family or other kin have stepped up to get involved. "He has no place to go," the city lawyer says. The boy flinches; he blinks.

"His mother is already being investigated by ACS" on charges of neglect, the city's lawyer says.

The boy's attorney tells the judge, "Family support would be good, like the services that follow a finding of neglect."