Criminal conduct can kick in at a tender age. But since a person isn’t considered physically and mentally developed until they turn eighteen years, California has a separate criminal justice system dedicated to juvenile offenders’ punishment & rehabilitation. When an individual below eighteen years is accused of an offense, they’re tried in juvenile court. We do not call them criminal proceedings, but delinquency proceedings. Delinquency proceedings are equally as serious as criminal proceedings, and the crimes minors commit may follow them into the future. Thus, juvenile offenders also need to be accorded proper legal defense.

Defending a teenager or adolescent requires knowledge and experience in handling juvenile crimes and California law as it applies to young offenders. At The LA Criminal Defense Law Firm, we boast several years of experience and understand how the juvenile court system works. We also believe that children deserve to transform into adulthood with a clean record and a fresh start. Therefore, we do our best to defend minors charged with juvenile offenses. If you’re in Los Angeles and your child has been accused of a crime, call us as soon as possible to receive expert legal advice about the case.

Defining Juvenile Delinquency

When a child below eighteen years old commits an offense, they may be convicted of two potential types of crimes. If the crime they committed is only an offense due to their age, that’s generally referred to as a status crime. Status crimes are relatively minor and typically don’t carry severe punishments. On the contrary, if the act the minor committed could be prosecuted in a criminal court if an adult committed it, that’s called a delinquent act. Juvenile delinquency is committing crimes by a child below the age at which ordinary prosecution is possible. Delinquent actions are within the juvenile delinquency courts’ jurisdiction. 

Juvenile delinquency courts are courts dedicated to ruling on misdemeanor and felony crimes supposedly committed by children. Juvenile courts also handle status offenses, including a curfew violation and truancy.  The jurisdiction of Juvenile courts in California is over children aged twelve to seventeen years and specific minors below twelve years.

In most juvenile delinquency cases, the crimes are usually categorized as misdemeanors. Common delinquent actions include fighting, trespassing, vandalism, petty theft. On rare occasions, if any, are children prosecuted as adults for these kinds of offenses.

Trying Children in Adult Courts

A minor who commits a more severe crime like misconduct that would usually be prosecuted as a felony is likely to be charged as an adult based on their age. The California three-strike law dictates that particular violent or severe offenses that children commit can be considered as strikes in the days to come. This could happen even if the criminal records of the offender are sealed. A minor who is fourteen years and above can be prosecuted in an adult court for specific severe offenses as listed in the Welfare and Institutions (W&I) Code 707(b). The crimes include:

  • Murder or attempted murder
  • Rape accomplished through force, violence, or threats of significant physical harm
  • Starting a fire to any building/structure with people inside
  • Carjacking
  • Robbery with a weapon
  • Drug crime
  • Escaping by use of violence or force from a juvenile detention facility if significant physical harm is deliberately inflicted on the juvenile facility’s employee
  • Sodomy by violence, force, or threats of substantial bodily harm
  • Crimes with firearms
  • A lascivious or lewd acts on a minor below fourteen years with force, violence, or threats of significant physical injury
  • Kidnapping for robbery purposes/for ransom/with physical harm/during a carjacking/for sexual assault purposes
  • Oral copulation accomplished through violence, force, or threats of substantial physical harm
  • Assault using a gun or any other destructive device/by force possible to generate significant bodily injury
  • Forcible sexual penetration
  • Torture
  • Discharging a firearm into an occupied or inhabited building
  • Drive-by-shooting
  • Voluntary manslaughter
  • Aggravated mayhem
  • Any of the offenses listed under PC 1203.09 against an individual who is disabled or above sixty years old
  • Any of the crimes described under PC 12022.5 or PC 12022.53 personal use of a gun
  • A felony crime whereby the child personally used any of the weapons listed under PC 16590(a)
  • A felony offense of dissuading a witness or PC 137 witness bribery
  • Selling, compounding or manufacturing a half an ounce or more of a solution or salt of any controlled substances mentioned in HSC 11055(e)
  • Exploding a destructive device intending to commit murder
  • A violent felony that would also be considered a felony under PC 186.22(b) criminal street gang sentencing enhancement

There are significant differences between adult court and juvenile court systems. In case the state wants to prosecute your kid as a grown-up, speak to your attorney about the child’s case.

The Juvenile Court Process

In California, the juvenile court process starts with the minor’s arrest. After the child’s arrest, the law enforcement officer can either:

  1. Make an arrest record and allow the minor to go home after issuing a simple warning to them.
  2. Send the kid to a respective agency that’ll care for, counsel, or shelter the child.
  3. Make the minor return to the station, i.e., the child will be cited back.
  4. Issue the juvenile and his/her parents with a Notice to Appear. They’ll be required to read this notice and comply with its requirements.
  5. Place the kid in a juvenile hall (i.e., detention). The minor can make two calls at the minimum within one hour of their arrest. One phone call has to be to their parent, relative, guardian, or boss, while the other should be made to an attorney.

If the law enforcement officers want to speak to the kid about his/her actions, they have to inform the child about their legal rights (i.e., Miranda rights). The rights include:

  1. The minor has the legal right to remain silent.
  2. Anything the child says can and will be used against them in court.
  3. The minor has the legal right to an attorney. If they or their parents can’t afford one, the judge will provide one.

Any child who is fifteen years of age or younger has to speak to an attorney before speaking to the law enforcement officer or waive their Miranda rights.  Any minor being accused of an offense has the legal right to an attorney who is well-prepared and effective. If you can’t afford a lawyer for your child, the court has to provide one for them. If the child doesn’t have an attorney, reach out to a public defender or any other attorney for advice.

Parent’s Rights When Their Child Is Arrested

As a parent, you also have rights. The police should inform you immediately your kid is arrested or detained. They must tell you the location of your kid and the legal rights he/she has. However, you probably won’t have to hire your own attorney.

Being Served With the Notice to Appear

If you and your child have been served with the Notice to Appear, read through it carefully. It’ll possibly require you to take your minor to the probation department for a meeting with a probation officer.  The probation officer can take any of these four actions at this meeting. He or she could:

  1. Lecture your kid and allow them to go home.
  2. Allow the minor to enroll in a voluntary program rather than going to court. A voluntary program might comprise special classes, community, service, counseling, or any other activity. If the child completes the program, they won’t have to be taken to court. You might be required to sign a contract that outlines what the minor should do. This contract can go up to six months.
  3. Send the juvenile home and forward the case to the DA. The DA will decide whether or not to bring a petition (papers that mean the child must be taken to court).
  4. Keep the minor detained and forward the case to the DA. The DA will then bring a petition against the juvenile, typically within 48 hours after their arrest. A petition resembles a criminal complaint brought in an adult court. The kid will undergo a detention hearing on the next day the court is in operation. Usually, the court doesn’t run on holidays, Saturdays, and Sundays.

What Happens at the Detention Hearing?

Any minor in custody has to be presented before a judge within forty-eight hours after detention. The parent/guardian needs to have a lawyer already, who will help them understand what charges their child faces. The lawyer’s role is pleading for the minor to be set free since California doesn’t provide the possibility for bail in juvenile courts.

At this point, the court receives input from the juvenile defense lawyer, prosecutor, probation officer, and the parents, if one already exists from a previous criminal conviction. The detention process is covered under the W&I Code 635. The hearing’s purpose is for the court to establish if there’s a possibility to send the minor to rehabilitation.

Also, depending on the offense, the judge decides whether the juvenile qualifies to be set free and go with his/her parents/guardian, or he/she has to remain in jail until the trial process begins.

Juvenile Criminal History Review

At the detention hearing, the court decides on the juvenile’s status based on his/her prior history of convicted offense, for instance, if the minor was already fourteen years at the time the previous crimes were committed.

In case these crimes weren’t felonies, the child may be sentenced to probation, which may include paying restitution and probation. Generally, the parents pay financial restitution and a percentage of the daily detention fee.

The Fitness/Transfer Hearing in Juvenile Courts

After the detention hearing, a transfer/fitness hearing will be held. A fitness hearing is a proceeding whereby the judge determines whether a child must be transferred to an adult court to face their criminal prosecution there or not. Before reaching a decision, the judge considers various factors, including:

  • The level of criminal sophistication showed displayed by the child
  • Whether the juvenile can go to rehabilitation before the juvenile court jurisdiction expires
  • The child’s past delinquent record
  • The success of any past attempts to rehabilitate the juvenile
  • The gravity and circumstances of the crimes mentioned in the petition

If the court determines that the child is fit to be adjudicated under the juvenile court system, the kid will stay in the juvenile court. And if the judge’s decision is otherwise, the child will be transferred to an adult court where he/she will be prosecuted according to the laws applicable to grown-ups. Mostly, juveniles accused of crimes in California State are tried in juvenile delinquency courts. But if the committed offense is severe, judges may rule that the child be prosecuted as a grown-up in a criminal court.

The DA has the discretion to initiate a transfer hearing and have the judge decide whether or not the child should be prosecuted as a grown-up. A juvenile charged in an adult court is bound to face a long sentence in adult prison/jail with other adult offenders. At worst, a child tried in a juvenile court is subject to a commitment to the DJJ until they turn twenty-five years old.

If the child loses the transfer hearing, he/she can contest it. To do this, the minor has to file a writ petition not later than twenty days after his/her initial arraignment on the accusations that resulted in the transfer.

The Adjudication/Jurisdiction Hearing in Juvenile Courts

An adjudication hearing is a juvenile’s trial conducted before a juvenile court judge. Here, the judge determines whether the child broke the law or not and should be punished. Most of the rules apply in juvenile courts as in adult courts, except there are only judges (no juries) and the proceedings are more relaxed.  Also, note that whereas in adult courts, the accused is subjected to trial and is found to be ‘not guilty’ or ‘guilty,’ while in juvenile court, the judge decides if the minor broke the law. ‘Guilty’ or ‘not guilty’ terms are not used.

During this hearing, the two sides (defendant and victim side) can make legal arguments and present proof. The DA has to establish beyond any reasonable doubt that the child committed the offense.

The law provides the timeframe within which an adjudication hearing must occur.  If the juvenile is in custody, he/she should undergo the hearing within fifteen court days, counted from the detention date. The deadline is extended if the child isn’t in custody. Here, the hearing has to be conducted within thirty days after the petition filing date.  These timeframes can be prolonged if there’s good cause to do so, and the child waives time (i.e., consents to the delay).

If the court rules the minor broke the law, the judge sings the accusations to be true and sustains the prosecutor’s petition. Alternatively, the judge may rule that the proof is inadequate to show that the child violated the law. In this case, the judge finds that the accusations aren’t true, and he/she doesn’t sustain the petition.

Disposition Hearing in Juvenile Courts

A disposition hearing is similar to a sentencing hearing in adult courts. At this point, the judge decides what punishment the minor will face, assuming they lost at the jurisdiction hearing. The judge considers the child’s age, past delinquent history, and gravity & circumstances of the crime when determining the sentence.

The law provides procedures and timelines for how and when each of these hearings occurs. At each hearing, the defense attorney and prosecutor may agree on a resolution and go direct to disposition. Additionally, if mistakes are committed, there may be one or more re-hearings. Parents/guardians have a right to attend every court hearing.

Penalties for Juvenile Delinquency

When handling minor-related cases, the juvenile justice system is highly bent toward rehabilitation instead of incarceration and punishment. This is a significant philosophical difference from the adult court system. When a grown-up is found guilty of an offense and sent to prison or jail, the aim is to punish that offender. However, when a juvenile is sentenced to probation or placed in a DJJ/camp, the goal is to rehabilitate them.

A child subject to the juvenile court system is supposed to be provided with the treatment, education, and the services they require to help him/her move past his/her offense, reunite with his/her family and transform into a productive citizen.

However, just because the juvenile courts’ purpose is rehabilitation doesn’t mean a kid who breaks the law will walk without being punished. The child could be sanctioned for their unlawful conduct. But these sanctions are intended to discipline and not for retribution. Also, they’re not as severe as the penalties that adults face.  They are:

  • Monetary fines for the child’s parents
  • Counseling to assist the offender in understanding his/her actions.
  • Parents being asked to pay court charges
  • Apology letter that’s written by the child
  • Diversionary programs. These programs usually involve minor monitoring through electronic means to try and prevent them from being involved in more trouble
  • Citations that will stay on the offender’s juvenile record
  • In severe cases, time in a juvenile detention center
  • The child lives with their parents under the court’s supervision
  • The minor will be placed on probation. They have to live with their relative, in a group home, foster home, or an institution
  • The offender be placed on probation and sent to a probation ranch or camp
  • The minor could be sent to the California Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation, Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ). If the minor is prosecuted in an adult court, they will be sent to the California Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation, Division of Adult Operations (DAO)

As we mentioned earlier, the judge considers the child’s age, the severity of the crime, and their criminal history, if any, before ruling on the case. Based on these factors, the judge might decide to impose one or more of these penalties. If the kid is sent to the DJJ, they will be taken to a reception center for thirty to ninety days. Here, the center will determine what treatment and education the child requires. Then, the minor will be taken to a youth camp or correctional facility.

If the minor is prosecuted in an adult court, they can be sentenced to an adult jail/prison. However, even if the child is sent to an adult jail/prison, they’ll remain at the DJJ until they are at least eighteen years. If the minor turns eighteen years old, the court can send them directly to an adult jail/prison. Alternatively, if the child’s sentence comes to an end before they turn twenty-one years, the court could allow them to remain at the DJJ the entire time. In case the kid’s sentence is longer, they’ll be taken to the CDCR on their eighteenth birthday.

Sentencing for Severe Crimes

Sentences for severe offenses are imposed where the child in custody is placed in a group home, a probation camp, juvenile prison under the DJJ, or juvenile hall. The minor becomes a ward of the state under any of these sentences. When a juvenile is made a ward of the court, it means the court is taking over primary responsibility for the child’s treatment and control. A child can be a ward of the court but still be permitted to serve out their probation at home.

Parental Duties When a Minor Is Facing Punishment

As a parent/guardian to the arrested child, you have various legal obligations. You might also have financial duties for any damage your child caused. You may be required to compensate the victim should the judge order restitution. For instance, you might have to reimburse the victim’s lost wages or medical bills, or what the child stole.

You could also ask the probation officer where to obtain assistance. You may also seek help from your local hospital, mental health center, or school district. And it’s always best to speak to an attorney since they are better positioned to provide the best possible help.

Victim’s Rights and Roles in the Juvenile Court

A minor also has legal rights as the victim of an offense. They have the right to info and the right to take part in the juvenile court process. They also might be capable of recovering their various losses. The minor has a right to request the judge to order another person to pay restitution.

Contact an Experienced Juvenile Delinquency Criminal Defense Attorney Near Me

Irrespective of how insignificant the charges against your child may seem, it is always best to seek legal services from a skilled juvenile criminal defense lawyer. An excellent attorney could help mitigate the severity and long-lasting effect of the offense. At The LA Criminal Defense Law Firm, we have broad experience helping juveniles and parents in Los Angeles navigate the juvenile justice system and achieve the best possible outcomes. To know more about how we could help solve your child’s case, contact us at 310-935-1675 right away for a cost-free consultation.