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Juvenile Law: Juvenile Deliquency

Juvenile law is a specialized field and few criminal lawyers have the requisite training and experience to handle juvenile cases. The procedures are far different than adult court. As a result many long time criminal attorneys, who are used to practicing in adult court, commit serious mistakes in juvenile court. Not only are the rules and procedures employed in California juvenile courts different from adult court, but also the defense strategies in juvenile cases require special considerations unique to juvenile law.

In California, there is a separate court for minors or juveniles, those persons under 18 years of age. Long ago, this state decided children and their needs are different from adults and a separate court system was required to provide those needs. Also, many believed that if juveniles did something wrong, they could be rehabilitated through intensive counseling, education, and guidance, whereas law-breaking adults might be less open to rehabilitation. Thus, the goal of the juvenile justice system is rehabilitation of the juvenile, as opposed to the adult court model of punishment. Having an attorney that understands this difference is imperative.

Juvenile Arrest and Filing of Charges

When juveniles are picked up or arrested, police and juvenile probation officers have discretion to release kids and send them home to their parents. If a juvenile is taken into custody, he must either be released within 48 hours or have a petition for wardship filed against him. The juvenile probation department generally makes only a preliminary assessment of whether to file formal charges, and leaves the final decision to a prosecutor. During this time, the parents must be notified about what is going on and/or the intent of the probation department and district attorney's office to have their child made a ward of the court. Unlike adult court where a "criminal complaint" is filed, in juvenile proceedings a "petition" is filed against your child. During these proceedings, juveniles have a right to a lawyer and have most of the procedural rights given adult defendants. But juvenile defendants, unlike adults in California, have no right to a jury trial, and no right to bail.

601 and 602 Juveniles

In regards to juveniles who break the law, there are two classifications:

First, there are juveniles who have committed status offenses. These are activities that are only wrong because they are committed by minors. If they were committed by adults, they would not be considered illegal at all. Examples of status are truancy, running away from home, violating curfew, or simply being outside of the control of your parents. These kids are also often called "children in need of supervision or 601 kids." 601 refers to the Welfare arid Institutions Code section that specifically relates to status offenses.

Second, there are juveniles who have committed an act that if committed by an adult would be considered criminal. These kids are often called "delinquents or 602 kids." Again, the number 602 refers to the Welfare and Institutions Code section that specifically relates to delinquents.

Juveniles Tried as Adults and Strike Priors

Exceptions to the two primary categories of juveniles described above are the children who are age 14 or older and have committed a very serious crime. Under these circumstances, the court, upon the urging of the district attorney's office can transfer a child from the juvenile justice system to the adult justice system. When this occurs, a "fitness hearing" under Welfare & Institution code section 707 is held to determine whether the minor is suited for the juvenile justice process or would be more appropriately treated if transferred to the adult court system.

This decision is based on the following criteria:

  • the juvenile's degree of criminal sophistication;
  • whether he can be rehabilitated;
  • the juvenile's previous delinquent history;
  • the success of previous attempts by the juvenile court to rehabilitate the minor; and
  • the circumstances and gravity of the offense.
Again, a district attorney will usually only recommend that a child be transferred to the adult courts when the child has allegedly committed an extremely serious offense, such as murder, arson, armed robbery, forcible sex crimes, kidnapping, assault, shooting a firearm into an occupied building, selling or providing certain drugs to other minors, or other aggravated offenses.

Additionally, juveniles who are age 16 or older and commit a 707 offense, although being tried in juvenile court, may be facing a Strike under the California Three Strikes Law. This conviction, although obtained as a juvenile, would be used as a strike prior in the adult criminal justice system if any other felony crime is ever committed. This could expose a young adult to considerable state prison time. Additionally, if your child lives a lawful life for many years but in the future commits a felony, his past juvenile mistakes could severally haunt him.

Juvenile Jurisdictional or Detention Hearings

In adult court the first appearance after a compliant has been filed is called an "arraignment." In the juvenile justice system there are two types of arraignments, depending upon whether the juvenile is in or out of custody. If the child is out of custody, this matter is called a "jurisdictional hearing." If the juvenile is being held in custody at the local juvenile hall or county jail, it is called a "detention hearing."

At the detention hearing the juvenile judge will make a determination on whether to continue to detain your child pending resolution of the matter. The judge will take input from the juvenile probation department, juvenile district attorney, and juvenile defense attorney.

The criteria used by most juvenile judges on whether to continue to detain your child pending adjudication of the matter are as follows:

  1. Is it reasonably necessary for the protection of the person (victim) or property of another that your child be detained;
  2. Is it a matter of immediate and urgent necessity for the protection of your child that she should be detained;
  3. Is there a lack of parental control
  4. Whether your child is a flight risk and will not appear in court;
  5. Whether your child has violated a prior court order
Since juveniles are not afforded the right to bail, only an experience juvenile justice attorney will know the proper and effective arguments used to release your child from custody. Ultimately, the release of your child is purely a discretionary decision by the judge.

Juvenile Pre-Trials

The pre-trial date is set up so that attorneys from both sides can discuss a possible resolution of the matter and exchange and discuss discovery (reports, etc). This is where most negotiations or plea bargains occur. If the juvenile is in custody, this must be set up a week following your child's detention hearing (arraignment in adult court), unless a time waiver is given. In other words, the pre-trial date can be set at a much later date if the juvenile and his attorney agree to waive time. If the juvenile is out of custody, his pre-trial must be scheduled two or three weeks after his jurisdictional hearing (out of custody arraignment in adult court) unless time is waived. Many juvenile judges participate in a discussion of a resolution through a private discussion in the judge's chambers.

Juvenile Contested Jurisdictional Hearing or Trial

Trials in juvenile court proceedings are generally known as "contested jurisdictional hearings." Juveniles are not afforded the Constitutional Right to a jury trial, thus the trier of fact and law is the judge, using the reasonable doubt standard. Therefore, it is important that you have a lawyer that is familiar with the juvenile justice system and juvenile judges. During juvenile bench trials, all the rules of evidence apply. Thus, a viable defense can be had by calling defense witnesses, experts, and submitting documentation, if they apply.

Juvenile Dispositional Hearing or Sentencing

If a juvenile pleas or is found guilty of the crime, a dispositional hearing (sentencing in adult court) is scheduled. At the dispositional hearing, the probation department generally decides what would be the court's appropriate response, keeping in mind that the overriding aim of the juvenile justice system is to rehabilitate youthful offenders and get them back on the right track. The court has various options: A judge may place the child on probation, seek restitution, assign the child to community service, to a work program, or sentence them to juvenile hall. A juvenile offender also may be sent to a training school or a secure facility, commonly known as "placement." (A secure facility is also known as "lock-up," where the juveniles are not allowed the freedom to leave.) Moreover, the juvenile may also be sentenced to California Youth Authority (CYA), which is considered California's juvenile prison system.

Contested Dispositional Hearings

Any of these recommendations by the probation department may be challenged; these hearing are called "Contested Dispositional Hearings." In a Contested Dispositional Hearing witnesses may be called to the stand, including the recommending probation officer, to justify how such a sentence will serve to rehabilitate the juvenile, as opposed to punish him. Moreover, effective cross examination of the probation officer and calling witnesses on behalf of the juvenile, thus showing the sentence would not serve to rehabilitate, could convince the judge that alternative sentencing is appropriate. These efforts, if done properly, could prevent a juvenile from spending time in juvenile hall, placement facilities, or CYA.

Jurisdiction of the Juvenile Justice System

If the child remains in the juvenile justice system she may be kept under the court's jurisdiction until the age of 21 if she was less than 16 when she became a ward of the court. If the juvenile is more than 16 years old when charged with a crime, the child will remain a ward of the court until the age of 25.

Sealing Juvenile Records

Sealing or destroying juvenile records is a complicated process and may not be possible if the child has been convicted of a felony or a misdemeanor involving moral turpitude, or if not enough time has passed since the child's conviction. Usually, records can be sealed after five years from the termination of the juvenile court's jurisdiction or as soon as the juvenile becomes 18, assuming no new law violations have occurred. Once sealed, the minor's records may not be opened for inspection unless ordered by the court.

The benefits of sealing your juvenile records are as follows:

  1. When your child's records are sealed, the records of arrest, detention, prosecution and conviction are physically sealed or destroyed
  2. You are authorized by law to say you have never been convicted
  3. You can start adulthood with no criminal convictions
  4. You can prevent losing a good job because of a conviction
  5. You will not need to check the box asking whether you have EVER been convicted of a crime on a job application
Due to recent changes in the law, certain offenses can not be sealed. The court shall not seal a person's record in any case in which the person has been found by the juvenile court to have committed an offense listed in subdivision (b) of section 707 when he or she has attained 14 years of age or older.

Roland B. Perez is an experienced and dedicated juvenile law trial attorney. He has specialized in the education and study of juvenile law at the Center for Children's Rights at Whittier Law School and included a judical clerkship as a legal research intern under the Presiding Judge Michael Nash of the Edmund D. Edelman Children's Court. He has successfully represented children accused of crimes ranging from assault and battery, car theft, robbery, commercial and residential burglary, drug possession and sales, DUI, and armed robbery.



1440 N. Harbor Blvd., Ste. 900, Fullerton, CA 92835, Phone: (714) 961-1966, Fax: (714) 961-1972

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