The juvenile court system is not an identical version of the adult system filled with younger criminals; legally speaking, minors commit “delinquent acts” not crimes, they have no right to a public trial with jury and courtrooms are often less formal and closed to the public.
However, most of these differences are positive, focused primarily on rehabilitating the minors as opposed to punishing them. For this reason, juvenile delinquent acts have a range of “punishments” (rehabilitative efforts) available that match the sophistication and severity of their offense.
Riverside juvenile defense attorney and certified specialist in criminal defense Graham Donath breaks down some of the most prominent punishments for minors in California.
Informal Juvenile Probation: Under Welfare and Institutions Code 725, a judge may place a minor on “informal probation” for up to six months. Depending on the offense, the minor must submit to supervision by a probation officer and participate in various treatment programs. Parents or legal guardians are also encouraged to participate in the programs alongside their child to facilitate a healthy and supportive environment around education and maturity. Informal probation is typically reserved for nonviolent first time offenders; if the minor obeys all of the court’s orders, charges are typically dismissed.
Formal Juvenile Probation: If a minor needs a higher level of structure, they may be ordered to formal probation at their home, a group home or a relative’s residence. Generally, minors are expected to obey mandatory curfews, school attendance, community service and counseling related to their crime (substance abuse, anger management, etc.).
Nationally, probation is the most common punishment for juvenile crimes with almost half receiving probation as their harshest punishment. If a probation officer believes the minor violated any terms of the informal or formal probation, they’ll file a “violation of probation” notice with the judge. If the judge agrees with the officer, they may revoke probation and impose a more severe punishment such as jail time.
Probation Camp: For those requiring even more structure, juveniles can be sent to serve probation at one of California’s 70 probation camps. Most resemble dorm style environments with a daily structure including educational and treatment programs. A few, however, emphasize forestry/firefighting training, military-style “boot camps” or “Missouri-model” camps which hold fewer minors and focus on intensive treatment.
Deferred Entry of Judgment (DEJ): Reserved for first time felonies that are not 707b offenses (see below), DEJ requires the minor to admit guilt and complete a DEJ program. Once done, however, the minor can withdraw their admission of guilt and charges are dropped.
Juvenile Hall/ Detention Facility: The most serious offenders will serve jail time in a juvenile detention center. As part of the Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ), minors will still experience heavy rehabilitative services including academic and vocational classes and treatment programs based on their offenses. Less than 1 percent of the 225,000 minors annually arrested in California go to DJJ.
However, some crimes are considered too heinous, even when committed by a child, for the above sentencing options. If a minor is suspected of murder, rape under the the threat of bodily harm or force, or lewd acts on a child under 14 (types of 707b offenses) they will automatically be tried as an adult. For other particular grievous violent crimes, the state allows the prosecution to argue the juvenile (between the ages of 14 and 17) should be tried as an adult.
It’s part of “The Juvenile Justice Initiative” passed by California voters in 2000 after an influx of highly publicized criminal gang activities committed by teenagers. For crimes not considered “automatic,” the prosecution must file a petition for a “‘fitness” hearing in juvenile court, where a judge will decide if the minor will benefit from the rehabilitation service of juvenile jail systems or not.
To do so the judge considers five criteria:
- The minor’s previous delinquent history
- Criminal sophistication displayed by minor
- The likelihood of successful rehabilitation prior to the end of juvenile sentencing
- Success of previous attempts to rehabilitate the minor though the juvenile system
- The circumstances and gravity of the alleged offense
With the exception of being tried as an adult, as long as the minor follows the probation conditions and isn’t a repeat offender, they should have no permanent record haunting them. While the process can be confusing and there are many paths the juvenile court system may take, an experienced criminal defense attorney can help guide families through the process.