If the alleged offense occurred after your 18th birthday, then you cannot be treated in the juvenile court. It’s that simple. The age of 18 is the cut-off. There are some other ages that are significant, so if you’re over 16 and you commit a certain class of offenses, then the prosecution can charge you directly into adult court. There is a section of the Welfare & Institutions code, the governing law for juvenile cases, that provides for Direct Filing of serious offenses into adult court; alternatively, when you are above 16, the prosecutor has that discretion to file in adult court by way of petition and subject to a fitness hearing.
A Juvenile Court Jurisdictional Hearing is held to determine whether or not the minor will be treated in juvenile court or sent up to the adult court for prosecution there. It is advised to get help from a California Juvenile lawyer in such a case so you get professional legal counseling.
The most common juvenile offense cases that we handle are narcotics and auto burglary offenses. There are two classes of juvenile cases in California; cases where the individual is actually eligible for a genuine punishment and others that offer a diversionary program where if the person follows all rules, the case is then sealed and it goes away. That can be done on some fairly serious cases, even sex offense cases.
Some sex offense cases that are lower to mid-level sex cases, such as babysitters touching little boys, or the other way around, are handled discreetly with counseling, and sealed. In addition to sex, narcotic and burglary cases, we also handle domestic violence cases. Domestic violence in California, is defined broadly. This could include boyfriend/girlfriend relationships even if they don’t live together, or even if they’ve only been dating for a few months.
In California, while the dependency system is governed by Welfare and Institutions Code Section 300, the juvenile delinquency system is governed by Welfare and Institutions Code Section 600. California has greatly reformed its juvenile system, such that many cases can be resolved by a form of diversion. A teenager – called a “minor” in the system — is allowed to make an admission to the petition (the equivalent of pleading guilty to a criminal charge) but the final result is delayed for either six months or a year. The minor may go to counseling, or do community service, and as long as the minor commits no offenses in the interim period, the petition is dismissed. The minor has no record, even in the juvenile system. This process disposes of more than half the cases that are filed. Regardless of the charge, it is important to speak with a juvenile crimes lawyer to help explain the process.
It is important to understand that the entire juvenile system and all the court files are confidential. The minor is not referred to by a complete name, but rather by “James S.,” or “Crystal C.” The files are not available to the public at all, the courtrooms are closed and restricted. All of this confidentiality is part of the idea that children must be protected. It also acknowledges that you may do some things while a juvenile, be rehabilitated – the system does not refer to any of its outcomes as “punishment” – and move on with no blemishes. The strict confidentiality ensures that once you are an adult, or actually much earlier, nobody should know what you are going through.
There are exceptions to the confidentiality, though for juveniles prosecuted as adults the lack of confidentiality is the least of their problems. Prosecutors can choose to prosecute juveniles as adults, which can be a matter of great controversy both in the public discourse, and in each individual case. The case can actually be brought directly to adult court in certain circumstances. If a minor is charged with what are called “707(b) offenses,” and if they are 16 years of age or older, the District Attorney can do a “direct file,” taking the case directly to adult court. The minor can challenge that filing at one juncture, the preliminary hearing, trying to persuade the judge (there is no jury at this point) that probable cause exists for the case to be sent to juvenile court. If that challenge succeeds, the case goes to juvenile court. If not, it proceeds at an adult case.
If the minor is 14 years of age or older, the District Attorney can petition the juvenile court for a Fitness Hearing, in which they can attempt to prove factors that lead to the case being transferred to adult court. The issue is whether the minor is “fit” for the treatment and rehabilitation available in the juvenile system, whether they are “amenable” to being dealt with in that way, rather than merely warehoused and punished. Depending on the nature of the offense, the burden of proof varies from fairly easy for the prosecution to extremely hard for them. Both direct filings and fitness petitions are intended to be reserved for the most serious cases.
The levels of treatment in juvenile court go from the lowest, where no petition is filed and you are on a “contract” with a probation officer – to diversion – then all the way to the equivalent of a prison sentence in a juvenile facility. While the California system has reformed a great deal, there still is a California Division of Juvenile Justice, formerly known as the California Youth Authority – the equivalent of the state prison for juveniles. Most of these facilities have now closed (they used to be called “gladiator academies”) and the remaining ones have shifted focus to education and rehabilitation. They still, however, work in crews to fight wild fires around the state. Fire crew duty is actually quite coveted, and some of the graduates have gone on to become firefighters in adult life.
This prison-like system is operated by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, that last word having been added when juvenile offenders were added to the system. It is used relatively little anymore and is to be reserved for minors that have failed at lower levels of rehabilitation. A minor can serve the equivalent of the years they would serve on an adult case in DJJ, up until they turn 21. This is done very little these days, since the kinds of cases that warrant that level of treatment, usually end up in adult court.
In conclusion, California’s juvenile system has reformed in many ways. Some say it is due to the lack of finances, which is true. But, it is also due to a belief that actual punishment should be reserved for the most serious offenders.
Technically, you don’t actually plead guilty in juvenile court; you admit the truth of the petition if you’re going to do that and yes, they will have an attorney. If a juvenile is charged with a crime, the court will not allow him or her to appear before the court on any charge above an infraction in which his or her freedom is at stake without counsel. So for any misdemeanor or felony charge they have the right to counsel. A juvenile cannot waive their right to counsel because to waive your right to counsel you have to prove to the judge that you understand the legal system well enough that you can handle this case. Adults do it once in a while, but not juveniles.
Juvenile crime laws in Oakland, CA are different from adult laws. They too have a 6th Amendment right to counsel and they also have all the associated Miranda Rights. They have the right to discovery, the right to confront witnesses, the right to be proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. They have the right to ask for their parents in a Miranda situation because it is considered the equivalent to asking for an attorney. They definitely have the right to be advised of the right to remain silent and the right to counsel.
The juvenile sentencing in Oakland, CA is also different. Someone has to explain to them the consequences of their decisions. The judge can’t do it, because the judge is supposed to be neutral. If you have questions, the judge can’t answer them. Even if you’re thinking, “Well, I don’t know if I want to fight this,” at the very least, you need a lawyer to explain that. How long am I going to get probation, am I going to get punished for this, what does it mean for my record, what does it mean for my future, or what happens if they tell me to do bunch of stuff and it doesn’t work out? What if I have a problem with immigration, because I wasn’t born in the United States? These questions and more like it are the reason juveniles are afforded the right to counsel – so they can be thoroughly advised along the way about big decisions that can affect their life. These are all things that even if you’re facing a situation where you don’t think you can win the case, you still need to know everything you are involved with, and everything you are facing. That’s one of the main reasons why you have a right to counsel. It’s certainly why you would want to consult with a lawyer, even if ultimately you don’t think you’re going to have a trial and try to defeat the case. The attorney can also help you understand the Oakland, California, juvenile delinquency process in a Free Consultation session.
Nothing that happens at juvenile court is considered punishment. It’s considered rehabilitation. They seem to have absorbed the idea that punishment is a form of rehabilitation, but there are many alternatives. Any case other than a fairly serious or violent crime, they are not going to do time in any kind of facility. They’re going to get an alternative treatment, usually counseling and rehabilitation. If it’s a drug case, they are going to go to drug treatment. They may not live in a drug treatment facility, they may see a counselor two or three times a week and be drug tested, which is probably the most common thing. If it is some kind of a low level to mid-level violent crime (i.e. a fight at school or two at school or a low level relationship dispute) they will likely be referred to complete counseling.
Counseling is pretty successful for most juveniles. For many, this is the first time they’ve ever had anybody step in and kind of offer them some assistance and we’ve seen several kids treat it as an opportunity rather than a challenge. Of course as an attorney, we do everything we can to limit the requirements that our clients have to perform. Every additional thing they have to do, from a legal standpoint, is just one more banana peel that they might slip on. Our goal is to limit the banana peels, hopefully down to zero if we can, to get them out entirely and not have to worry about ongoing requirements.