What To Expect When, And After, Your Child Goes To Juvenile Court

Arguably, children charged with criminal offense are insane as a matter of law. Most children are biologically incapable of making good decisions, because on average, the brain is not fully developed until age 25. Specifically, the risk/reward section of the brain is one of the last ones to mature. That’s why children chase bouncing balls into busy streets. Further complicating matters, some children have problems distinguishing fantasy from reality.

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According to Tulsa DUI Guy, one of the juvenile court system’s main tasks is to identify those children in need of rehabilitation and more time to develop (most of them) and separate these kids from truly violent offenders who are a risk to society (only a handful). Similarly, one of a juvenile defense attorney’s main jobs is to ensure that the outcome of the case matches the needs of the child.

Juvenile vs. Adult Court

The juvenile justice process has changed a lot since Farrell v. Allen, a 2004 lawsuit that ushered in major changes to the system. As a result, only a few cases, including special circumstances murder (if the minor actually killed the victim) and certain violent sexual offenses (e.g. forced sex in concert with another person and rape with significant bodily injury) are automatically tried in adult court.

In most cases, the judge must hold a “fitness hearing” to determine which forum is proper. There is a presumption that adult court is the better place, and the defendant must convince the judge otherwise.

In California, people under 18 at the time they allegedly commit criminal offenses are “juveniles.”

Possible Outcomes

As many as 95 percent of criminal cases settle out of court. That is usually a good thing in juvenile court, because for the most part, the family has been through enough trauma already and it may be in everyone’s best interests to resolve the matter as quickly and quietly as possible. Moreover, while any criminal punishment is not easy to deal with, an attorney can often arrange a resolution that includes little or no confinement. Finally, the case records can often be buried so they do not come back to haunt the child later, as outlined below.

  • Diversion: Welfare and Institutions Code 654 is the main pretrial diversion program in juvenile cases.  It is most often used in low-level theft cases, like shoplifting. If the minor completes the program, which lasts for a maximum six months and normally includes some counselling, education, and community service, no charges are filed and the case goes away entirely. If the minor fails to complete the program, charges are filed and the case moves forward.
  • Informal Probation: Under WIC 725, a petition is filed, but the case is put on hold at that point. Instead, the minor may be placed on probation for up to six months, and if the minor completes the program, the prosecutor dismisses the charges. One of the main practical differences between diversion and informal probation is that in Section 725 cases, the conditions are usually a little more extensive. For example, the minor will probably be drug tested and required to pay restitution. Furthermore, both the parent and the minor may have to attend classes and/or counselling. Informal probation is usually available in more serious misdemeanors, like theft from an individual or vandalism.
  • Deferred Entry of Judgement: In DEJ cases under WIC 790, charges are filed and the minor admits guilt before a judge. However, instead of entering a finding, the judge defers further proceedings for between one and three years. If the minors successfully complete probation, which is very much like the probation in adult court, they can withdraw their guilty pleas and there is no conviction record. DEJ is available for most first-time felonies.
  • Formal Probation: Depending on the charge, probation lasts a minimum three years and often includes between three months and a year at a juvenile boot camp. Sometimes the minor can complete the probation at home, but just as often, the minor will be placed in a group home or with a relative. In serious or subsequent felonies, probation is usually the only alternative to confinement.

A few juveniles are confined with the California Division of Juvenile Justice (formerly known as the CYA), but most go to adult jail.

Sealing Records

Contrary to popular myth, juvenile records are not automatically sealed when the person becomes an adult. Furthermore, even if the judge dismissed the case and did not enter a finding of guilt, the person may still have a record. The only way to seal a juvenile record is to file a petition under WIC 781. To be eligible, the petitioner must:

  • Be at least 18,
  • Have no adult convictions for a felony or any crime of moral turpitude, and
  • Not have been convicted of a serious felony after age 14.

A seal affects not only conviction records, but also arrest records, probation reports, trial exhibits, and anything else related to the offense.

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