Juvenile Justice vs. Adult Criminal Justice in California
As a parent, you undoubtedly worry about all the things that could go wrong along the long road from you child’s birth to adulthood. As your child approaches his or her teenage years, or possibly even prior to that time, you may begin to worry about your child becoming involved in the California juvenile justice system. If your fears are realized you may feel frightened, lost, and confused all at the same time.
Unlike the adult criminal justice system, the juvenile justice system in California does not always operate with a strict set of procedures and predictable outcomes. This is due, in part, to the wide discretion a judge has when presiding over a juvenile matter. One aspect that is the same is your child’s right, or your right, to be represented by an attorney.
Although the juvenile justice system may appear to be less formal than the adult criminal justice system, some of the negative consequences from juvenile court can follow your child for years to come. For this reason alone it is wise to consult with an experienced California criminal defense attorney if your child becomes involved with the California juvenile justice system. It may also help to have a better understanding of how the system works and the possible outcomes your child is facing.
The Juvenile Justice System Process
When a juvenile becomes involved with a law enforcement officer the officer has the option to release the minor to his/her parents or to take the minor to juvenile hall. Even if your child is taken to juvenile hall it may still remain possible to have him or her released. A petition may then be filed alleging that your child committed a criminal offense. Getting a California criminal defense attorney involved at this point is a wise choice.
The next step is a detention hearing. At the detention hearing your child can admit or deny the allegations. If your child denies the allegations a jurisdiction hearing will be held. A jurisdiction hearing is the juvenile equivalent to a trial in adult court. The prosecuting attorney is required to prove the allegations beyond a reasonable doubt. One significant difference is that a juvenile does not have the right to a trial by jury as an adult does.
Therefore, the judge will decide if the allegations are true or not. If the judge decides the allegations are true the court will move on to the disposition hearing which is similar to a sentencing hearing in adult court.
Commonly Asked Questions
Can a minor be charged with a criminal offense?
Yes, a minor can be charged with the same offenses as an adult – the difference is found in how the case is handled procedurally. A juvenile can be charged with a felony, a misdemeanor, or a “status” offense. “Status” offenses are things such as truancy or curfew violations that only apply to minors. In 2012, 30 percent of all juvenile arrests were for felonies, 56 percent were for misdemeanors and 13 percent for status offenses. Under certain circumstances a juvenile offender can even be remanded to adult court and tried as an adult.
What can a judge order in juvenile court?
The primary way in which California’s juvenile court differs from the adult criminal court system is in the wide variety of options a judge has when a minor admits an accusation or the judge has found an accusation to be true. Where the adult criminal justice system is focused, at least in part, on punishment, the goal of the juvenile justice system is to intervene and provide rehabilitation to minors whenever possible. Toward that end, a juvenile court judge has a number of options available, including:
- School services
- County social services
- Referral to community based organizations
- Removal from the home
- Placement in foster care
- Informal probation
- Formal probation
- Placement in a county ranch or camp
- Commitment to the Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ)
What happens after the disposition hearing?
What follows the disposition hearing depends on the judge’s orders. According to the California Legislative Analyst’s office only about five percent of all police-minor interaction results in the minor being referred to the probation department for evaluation. Of those referrals, about half go on to have a formal petition alleging criminal activity filed with the court. Approximately one-fourth of the cases referred to court result in formal probation while less than one percent are sent to the DJJ.
Formal probation for a minor is very similar to formal probation for an adult. A juvenile placed on formal probation will be required to report to a probation officer on a regular basis. In addition, the juvenile’s grades and attendance in school will likely be monitored and a curfew may be put in place. Additional special conditions may also be ordered to address specific issues such as drug use or a perceived mental health issue.
County “ranches” or “camps” are another option for a judge. A ranch or camp is intended as a short-term secure placement option for offenders who have committed serious enough crimes and/or who have a lengthy history with the juvenile justice system to warrant more than formal probation. A ranch or camp is usually the “last stop” before referral to the DJJ.
The DJJ is a secure, locked down, facility that serves as the juvenile equivalent of a jail. The DJJ can house offenders up to the age of 25. In fact, over 70 percent of the DJJ’s population is over the age of 18. Often, a minor is sentenced in adult court but then allowed to serve his or her period of incarceration in the DJJ up to the point at which the offender turns 25.
If your child has been detained by the police or taken to juvenile hall it is in your child’s best interest to consult with an experienced California criminal defense attorney right away to ensure that your child’s rights are protected.
For more information on juvenile justice in California, refer to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Division of Juvenile Justice and Public Policy Institute of California, Juvenile Justice in California.