Youth or Juvenile Offenses Explained
What is juvenile delinquency court?
Juvenile delinquency court is a court dedicated to adjudicating felony and misdemeanor crimes allegedly committed by minors. The Juvenile Division of the Lassen County Superior Court oversees juvenile delinquency court as well as informal juvenile court (which deals with infraction and low-level misdemeanors)
Juvenile Court's jurisdiction is over minors age 12 to 17 and certain minors under 12.
Juvenile delinquency proceedings are sometimes referred to as "Section 602 proceedings" after the applicable section of California law that governs delinquency proceedings.
Judges hear cases in juvenile court. There are prosecutors and defense attorneys, but no juries. Juvenile court proceedings are generally confidential.
Juvenile court lingo
The judge does not find a minor "guilty" or "innocent" in the California juvenile court system. Instead, if the judge finds that the minor committed the crime alleged beyond a reasonable doubt, the judge "sustains the petition" filed by the district attorney.
There are a number of different "dispositions" (sentences) available in juvenile court. At the low end of the spectrum is informal probation. The minor never admits any allegations of wrongdoing and the charges are dismissed upon successful completion of the program.
At the other end of the spectrum is commitment to the Division of Juvenile Justice and housed within the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
What is the juvenile court process?
The California juvenile court process begins with the arrest of a minor. Things may end right there, as law enforcement can decide to release the minor with a simple reprimand.
- detention hearing (for minors in custody)
- arraignment (for minors out of custody)
- transfer hearing (in cases of 707(b) offenses)
- jurisdiction hearing (the trial)
- disposition hearing (for sentencing)
At each stage the prosecutor and defense attorney may reach a resolution and go straight to disposition.
Parents are entitled to attend each court hearing.
Wards of the court
When the judge makes a minor a "ward of the court" it means that the court is taking over primary responsibility for control and treatment of the minor. A minor can be a ward of the court but still allowed to serve out probation at home.
In other cases, the minor might be placed in foster care, in a group home or in a county probation camp.
Goal of rehabilitation
In theory, the California juvenile justice system is designed to "rehabilitate" offenders. This is an important philosophical difference from the adult system.
When an adult is convicted of a crime and sentenced to jail or prison, the purpose is to punish the offender. But when a minor is placed on probation, or committed to camp or DJJ, the purpose is to rehabilitate the minor.
Kids in the juvenile court justice system are supposed to get the education, treatment and services they need to move past their crimes, reunite with their families and become productive citizens.
Just because the goal of the California juvenile court system is rehabilitation, that does not mean a child who disobeys the law gets off without punishment. The minor can be "sanctioned" for impermissible conduct but the sanctions are designed for discipline and not retribution.
Sanctions can include:
- Payment of a fine and/or restitution
- Community service
- Attendance in victim impact class
- Placement in a foster home
- Probation/parole conditions
- Commitment to a juvenile hall, camp, or ranch
Generally speaking, minors under the age of 18 are tried in the California juvenile court system. But there are cases in which younger minors can be tried in adult court.
Minors under 18 generally go to juvenile court
Pursuant to California Welfare & Institutions Code Section 602 WIC, juvenile court has jurisdiction over offenses allegedly committed by minors who are under the age of 18 at the time of the offense.
If someone commits a crime at age 17 but it is not discovered or tried until the minor is 20, the minor can still be tried in juvenile court.
Some minors go to adult court
Juveniles 16 and up alleged to have committed a Section 707(b) offense may be subject to a "transfer hearing," where the judge decides whether the minor should be transferred to adult court.
Under certain circumstances described below, minors aged 16 and older alleged to have committed one of the 30 crimes listed in W&I Code 707(b) also can be tried in adult court.
The "Section 707(b) offenses" include:
- Arson causing great bodily injury or of an inhabited structure.
- Rape with force, violence or threat of great bodily harm.
- A lewd or lascivious act on a child under 14 with force, violence or threat of great bodily harm.
- Oral copulation by force, violence or threat of great bodily harm.
- Forcible sexual penetration.
- Assault by means of force likely to produce great bodily injury.
Prosecutors have discretion to initiate a "transfer hearing" and have a judge decide whether the minor should be charged as an adult.
Termination of jurisdiction
Juvenile court jurisdiction terminates when the ward reaches the age of 21.
In cases where the minor committed a 707(b) offense and was committed to CYA, jurisdiction can last until the minor is 25 years old.
What could happen to my child?
A number of different sentencing options (called "dispositions") are available in the California juvenile delinquency system. They range from informal probation to commitment to CYA.
When a case is not very serious, the minor might be eligible for informal probation and diversion under Welfare & Institutions Code 654 or W&I Sec. 725.
W&I Sec. 654 diversion
Under California Welfare & Institutions Code Section 654, the case is "diverted" to probation before a petition filing takes place.
In juvenile court, we often see cases involving shoplifting and petty theft violations under Penal Code 484 pc shoplifting. Given the low-level nature of the offense, in a shoplifting case our California Juvenile Criminal Defense Attorneys would try to get Section 654 diversion or Section 725 informal probation. This means the minor either avoids a filing in the first place or gets the Penal Code 484 pc shoplifting charge dismissed upon successful completion of probation.
In an effort to "adjust the situation which brings the minor within the jurisdiction of the court or creates the probability that the minor will soon be within that jurisdiction," the probation officer will develop a plan for the minor that can last no longer than six months.
The program generally includes education and counseling.
If the minor fails to perform, the probation officer can still initiate formal petition proceedings with the juvenile court.
W&I Sec. 725 informal probation
The judge makes the decision to place the minor on informal probation. The difference from W&I Sec. 654 informal probation is that a petition is actually filed...but the petition is "put on hold"...so the minor gets a second chance.
The minor never admits guilt and as long as the minor complies with the probation conditions the petition gets dismissed.
Probation conditions generally include school attendance, counseling for both the minor and his or her parents and curfew. Other possible conditions are drug testing and restitution.
W&I Section 725 informal probation lasts for six months.
If a California juvenile court declares the minor to be a ward of the court, the court can sentence the minor to a term of probation. Sometimes wards can complete their probation at home (even though they are wards of the court).
In other cases, the court will assign the ward to a "suitable placement" in a relative's home or in a group home. This includes level 14 group homes for emotionally disturbed minors.
Probation terms can include anything reasonably necessary for the rehabilitation of the minor, including:
- mandatory school attendance,
- curfew restrictions,
- substance abuse counseling,
- not hanging out with certain people,
- community service,
- graffiti removal, and
Minors needing a greater level of structure can be sent to "probation camp" for a period of between three months and one year.
Unfortunately, a juvenile adjudication can follow a child into the future. Juvenile convictions (or "sustained petitions" as they're formally called) count as strikes for purposes of California's Three Strikes Law. Further, the California Rules of Court allow adult courts to look at juvenile adjudications in making probation and sentencing decisions.
However, in cases of less serious juvenile convictions, your child may be able to seal his or her juvenile record if your child fulfills his or her sentence and remains crime-free for a certain period of time.