Being arrested can be a traumatizing experience, especially for minors. Every year in California, thousands of juveniles face probation and secure confinement sentences. Even if a child is lucky enough to go home on probation, they would still have to deal with the stigma of having a juvenile criminal record. However, not all is lost with the many options available under the California juvenile court justice system. With the help of a competent attorney, it is possible to keep your child out of custody and help him/her get his life back on track. If your child is facing juvenile charges in California, the San Diego Criminal Attorney can help the child get the best possible outcome.

Handling of Juvenile Cases in California

In California, the juvenile delinquency court handles all felony and misdemeanor crimes committed by children. The juvenile courts are also responsible for managing curfew violations, truancy, and other status offenses committed by juveniles. The informal juvenile court also handles crimes committed by minors, mainly low-level misdemeanors and infractions. The juvenile dependency court deals with abandoned, neglected, and abused children.

Typically, juvenile courts in California handle offenses committed by minors between the ages of 12 and 17. However, in some instances, the courts handle crimes committed by children below 12 years. The juvenile court in California is not under the California criminal court system. Instead, it is under the civil law system. Section 602 of the California law governs delinquency proceedings in California. For this reason, the alternative name for delinquency proceedings in California is Section 602 proceedings.

In Juvenile cases, judges handle cases while defense attorneys and prosecutors participate. However, juvenile court cases do not involve juries; generally, juvenile cases are confidential. According to the SB 439 law signed by the then California Governor, Jerry Brown, in 2018, the court can only assume jurisdiction over a minor below 12 years under certain circumstances.

Senate Bill 439

The Senate Bill 439 was signed in September 2018. This bill limits the ability of the court to exercise jurisdiction over a child below 12 years. However, in certain instances, the court can exercise authority over a child below 12 years. This bill does not protect a child charged with rape, murder, sodomy, sexual penetration, or oral copulation, even if they are below 12 years. For these offenses, the court will have jurisdiction over the child as long as he/she committed the crime through force, menace, violence, or threat of bodily injury.

Before the passage of SB 439, the court would exercise jurisdiction over all children irrespective of their ages. The minimum age of children, where courts could not handle cases, did not exist. According to SB 439, the court has jurisdiction over children between the ages of 12 and 17. The court will also have authority over a child who violates a municipal ordinance, California, or United States law.

For non-violent crimes, SB 439 requires different California counties to come up with an ideal alternative to the juvenile system. The other options should be least restrictive; however, the bill does not mention the specific party responsible for coming up with the alternatives. However, the bill hints that community-based or school-health services could come up with the programs. The passage of the bill brought some changes to the juvenile justice system in California.

What was the reasoning behind the passage of the Senate Bill 439? The reasoning behind SB 439 is that the interaction of a child with the justice system at an early age could adversely affect the child's development and education. In addition, if a minor enters the justice system early, he/she is likely to become a chronic or repeat offender as an adult. The laws imposed by SB 439 are in line with a child's development; teenage brains take time before maturing into adulthood. After its passage in September 2018, the Senate Bill became operational in January 2019.

Sentences Available in Juvenile Court

In the current California juvenile system, the judge cannot consider a minor innocent or guilty. If it is evident beyond a reasonable doubt that the minor committed the alleged crime, the judge sustains the petition submitted by the prosecutor or district attorney. Several sentences or dispositions are available under the juvenile justice system in California.

The minimum sentence often involves informal probation. Under informal probation, the juvenile does not have to admit the accusations of wrongdoing. When the juvenile completes the informal probation successfully, it leads to dismissal of charges. Harsher sentences also exist; a minor might have to commit to the California Youth Authority, currently called the Division of Juvenile Justice.

The court could also take over the primary responsibility for the treatment or control of a minor. This happens when the judge makes or declares a minor a ward of court. However, even as a ward of the court, the juvenile could still complete probation from home. The court could also decide to place the minor in a probation camp, foster care, or group home.

The juvenile system in California aims to rehabilitate offenders, unlike the adult system, which seeks to punish offenders. While under the juvenile justice system, a child should still have access to education and treatment services. Children should have access to all services necessary to help them above crimes, reunite with their families, and grow into responsible citizens.

However, even if the goal of the juvenile system is to rehabilitate young offenders, it does mean that juveniles do not face any punishment for breaking the law. Sanctions for impermissible conduct could apply to minors as well. However, the penalties are not for attribution but discipline. Some of the sanctions that could apply in a juvenile system include:

  • Payment of restitution to the victim

  • Payment of fines

  • Engaging in community service

  • Attendance of victim impact classes

  • Spending time in a foster home

  • Parole or Probation conditions

  • CYA commitment

  • Juvenile hall, ranch, or camp commitment

Issues with the Juvenile Justice System in California

Due to its remarkable objectives, you would expect the juvenile system in California to be perfect. However, the juvenile system in California has some failures, which have attracted immense criticism. For instance, the California Youth Authority has some adverse conditions, including:

  • Using excessive force, especially by restraining children and using mace on them

  • Making minors attend schools while still in cages

  • Making children remain in a cell for long hours (up to 23 hours daily)

  • Limiting access to physical and mental health services by children

  • Using psychotropic medication to control children in the juvenile facilities

  • Embracing a culture that features excessive, gang-like violence

In 2014, the California Youth Authority committed to rectifying the deplorable conditions, as discussed below.

Changes in the Juvenile Justice System

The juvenile justice system in California has been in the process of realignment due to sentencing preferences, cost, and litigation. The realignment from the state to counties has seen counties embrace the responsibility of securing, treating, and rehabilitating juveniles. However, violence and severe youth offenders are still committed to CYA. Senate Bill 81, passed in 2007, sought to realign the juvenile system to the county level from the state level. The passage of this bill resulted from litigation and the high cost of confining juveniles at the state level.

Due to the changes in the law, only less than one percent of juvenile offenders in California end up in the CYA. The majority of juvenile offenses, especially the less severe and non-violent crimes, are handled at county probation departments.

However, there are still some problems at the county-level juvenile camps; this has attracted criticism for the camps just like CYA. One area of concern is the deficiency of educational services offered to children in the camps. Violence and riots are also common occurrences in probation camps.

Trials in the Juvenile Court in California

Typically, the California juvenile courts handle minors who are below 18 years. However, under certain circumstances, children could be tried in the adult court systems. According to the Welfare & Institution Code 602 in California, juvenile courts have jurisdiction over minors who had not attained 18 years of committing the offense. If a minor commits a crime at the age of 17 years but is discovered at 20 years, he/she could still face trial in a juvenile court.

When do Minors Face Trial in an Adult Court?

If a juvenile of 16 years and above commits an offense under Section 707 (b), he/she might be subject to a transfer hearing. While deciding whether to transfer a minor to adult court or not, the judge might consider these factors:

  • The criminal sophistication of the offense committed by the minor

  • Whether it is possible to rehabilitate the minor before the expiry of the juvenile jurisdiction

  • The minor's previous delinquency history

  • The previous attempts to rehabilitate the minor and whether the attempts were successful

  • The gravity and the circumstances of the offenses outlined in the petition

If a minor has committed one of the 30 offenses outlined under the W&I Code 707(b), he/she might be subject to trial in an adult court. Some of the crimes outlined under this code include murder, rape with violence, threat of bodily violence, robbery, and arson of an inhabited structure or arson causing significant bodily injury. Other offenses that could warrant a transfer hearing are kidnapping for ransom, forcible sexual penetration, attempted murder, kidnapping with physical harm, kidnapping for robbery, and torture.

If a minor escapes from a juvenile facility, ranch, home, camp using violence or force, he/she might be subject to a transfer hearing. The hearing will mainly apply if a minor intentionally instills bodily injury to an employee of the juvenile facility.

A minor might also be subject to transfer hearing for committing a felony offense personally using a weapon outlined under PC 16590(a). The hearing would also apply for an offense described under PC 12022.5 or PC 12022.53 for the personal use of a firearm.

A prosecutor has the discretion to initiate a transfer hearing. However, only a judge can decide whether a minor should face charges as an adult. In most cases, the jurisdiction under a juvenile court system terminates when a minor reaches the age of 21 years. However, jurisdiction could last for up to 25 years if a minor was in CYA for committing a 707(b) offense.

The Juvenile Court System in California

In California, the juvenile court system starts after the arrest of a minor. If the police decide to release the minor after a simple reprimand, the justice system ends there. However, the police may find it proper to deliver the juvenile to the probation department. This would lead to a filing of a petition against the minor and the detention of the minor in a juvenile hall. A petition against a minor is similar to a criminal complaint against an adult offender. The juvenile court process in California comprises of these hearings:

  • A detention hearing conducted for minor offenders in custody

  • An arraignment hearing conducted for minors out of custody

  • A transfer hearing if a minor has committed a section 707(b) offense

  • A jurisdiction hearing or the trial

  • A disposition hearing or sentencing

For each of the mentioned hearings, there are designated procedures and timelines set by the law to govern how the hearings occur. The defense attorney and the prosecution could agree at any stage and go straight to the sentencing. In case of errors during the hearing, there could be a need for one or more re-hearings. The minor's parents have to be present at every hearing.

Possible Sentencing

Under the California juvenile system, several dispositions or sentencing options are available. Some of the possible options are:

  • Informal probation

  • Deferred entry of judgment

  • Formal probation at camp or home

  • CYA Commitment

If a juvenile commits a case that is not very serious, he/she might be eligible for diversion and informal probation. In most cases, informal probation is available to first-time offenders in non-violent crimes like trespass and vandalism. According to California law, diversion usually applies before filing a petition against a minor. In juvenile courts, typical offenses revolve around low-nature crimes like shoplifting. For such crimes, an attorney could try to get informal probation under Section 725 or a diversion under Section 654. If an attorney is successful, a minor can be able to avoid a petition filing. A minor could also get a dismissal of his/her charges after completing probation successfully.

After the filing of a petition against a minor, the judge could decide to place the juvenile in informal probation. To do this, the judge has to put the probation on hold to give the minor a second chance. While on probation, a minor has to adhere to specific requirements of probation. Conditions of probation could include counseling for the minor and his/her parents, school attendance, counseling, and curfew. Other elements of probation could include restitution and drug testing. Typically, informal probation lasts for up to six months.

According to California's Welfare & Institutions Code 790, a minor could be subject to the deferred entry of judgment. Under this sentencing, a minor has to admit guilt to the allegations outlined in the probation. However, after completing the DEJ program, the minor's charges are dismissed. The DEJ program lasts between 12 and 36 months. The DEJ is only available to first-time offenders; the offense should not be a Section 707(b) offense.

If the juvenile court declares a minor to be a ward of the court, the minor could be subject to a term of probation. Even if a minor is a ward of the court, he/she could still be able to complete probation at home. The court could also decide to place a minor in a group home or a relative's home. For instance, the court could place the minor in a level 14 group home for emotionally disturbed minors.

If a minor requires a higher level of structure, the court could send the minor to a probation camp for three months to one year. Across California, there are around 70 camps. A minor has to adhere to a daily schedule of treatment programs and education in the dormitory-based camp.

California also offers other forms of probation camps. The most common include wilderness and fire camps. While in these camps, the emphasis is on firefighting and forestry skills. Other than an adult prison, the other most serious punishment a minor can face is placement at CYA. Only a minor who has committed a serious offense under Section 707(b) can go to CYA. Commitment at CYA could also apply if a minor commits an offense that requires registration as a sex offender in California.

The Long-term Impacts of Juvenile Adjudication

A juvenile adjudication on a child could have some adverse effects on the child as an adult. For instance, a juvenile sustained petition could qualify as a strike according to the Three Strikes law in California. According to the law, adult courts have the mandate of looking at juvenile convictions/adjudications when making sentencing and probation decisions for an adult. Therefore, if you commit a juvenile offense and later commit an additional offense as an adult, you are likely to get harsher sentencing.

If a child commits a sex-related juvenile offense, it could lead to registration as a sex offender in California. The sentence could even have adverse effects, including civil confinement, for being a violent sex offender in California. Sex registration in California has three tiers. The first tier requires a person to register as a sex offender for a minimum of ten years. This registration is for people who have committed less serious sexual offenses like indecent exposure or sexual battery.

Tier two sexual registration requires a person to register as a sex offender for a minimum of twenty years. This registration is for a person who has committed a mid-level sexual offense, including lewd acts with minor and non-forced sodomy with a person below 14 years of age.

Tier three sexual registration requires a person to register as a sex offender for a lifetime. This registration applies to people who have committed extreme sex offenses like rape, sex crimes using force, sex crimes against children below ten years, and multiple sex crimes. Having to register as a sex offender due to the crime committed as a minor would be a detrimental consequence. It is important to have a reliable attorney to fight on your behalf.

The Role of an Attorney

It would be disturbing for a parent and a minor to go to court; it is often a continuous battle of thoughts as parents wonder whether the minor will go home or whether the minor will be placed in custody. oIn To make the juvenile justice process easier, it is essential to have an experienced defense attorney by your side. Not every attorney is suitable; you will need to have an attorney who handles the juvenile law system explicitly. This is because the juvenile justice system has significant differences with the adult criminal system.

An attorney will guide you and your child through the complex juvenile justice system. Having a competent attorney will determine the outcome of your case. For instance, an attorney will determine whether a petition is filed against your child or not. An attorney will also influence whether your child will go home with you or remain in a juvenile hall. Your attorney's choice could also determine whether your child will spend time in state prison as an adult offender.

Other than legal experience, juvenile attorneys have other essential characteristics that help minors who are in distress. A good attorney has perseverance and patience; he/she will not give up on your child.

Find a San Diego Criminal Attorney Near Me

If your child is facing a conviction for committing a crime in California, you should immediately speak to a juvenile defense attorney. You should seek the help of an attorney despite the seriousness of the case. San Diego Criminal Attorney has assisted many families in handling juvenile cases in California. Contact us at 619-880-5474 and speak to one of our experienced attorneys.