It is vital to seek the help of an attorney that has experience specifically in juvenile court because it’s a different world. In juvenile court the terminology is different, the procedures are different and even the law can be different. Many defense attorneys practice mostly in adult criminal courts and will from time to time take juvenile cases. These defense attorneys often don’t know about the intricacies of juvenile court that could potentially benefit their client’s case.
Traditional criminal defense attorneys who do not have a focus on juvenile court would not know that “status offenses” like truancy and curfew violation are considered criminal acts when committed by juveniles. The first sign of an attorney who is not dedicated to juvenile criminal court cases is an attorney who refers to cases as “convictions” instead of “adjudications.” Technically, juvenile court is not part of the California criminal law system. It is part of the civil law system where cases are adjudicated. There are also no juries in juvenile court, and the proceedings are generally kept confidential.
There are also a number of different “dispositions” – also known as sentences – in juvenile court that wouldn’t necessarily be available in adult criminal proceedings. Informal probation is certainly an option, however in juvenile court the minor never admits any allegation of wrongdoing and the charges are dismissed upon successful completion of the program. Juvenile offenders are also not “incarcerated” in state prison; they are “committed” to the California Youth Authority (CYA) which is also called the Division of Juvenile Justice under the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitations.
Juvenile offenders are committed to CYA instead of incarcerated because the goal of the juvenile justice system is to rehabilitate offenders. It is well known that the adult criminal justice system is designed to punish, deter, and incapacitate – rarely is rehabilitation a goal. Juvenile offenders will often get the education, treatment and services necessary to move past their crimes, reunite with their families and become productive members of society.
Although most minors under the age of 18 at the time of the offense will be tried in the juvenile justice system, there are cases in which younger minors can be tried in the adult court system. The age at the time of offense is critical, this means that if the offense was committed when the offender was 17 but is not caught until age 20, the case can still be heard in the juvenile justice system.
However, certain crimes committed while the minor is 14 and up must be heard in the adult court system. These are typically very serious crimes such as murder with special circumstances, sex offenses such as rape with force, violence or threat of bodily harm, forcible sex in concert with another, lewd and lascivious acts on a child under 14 with force, violence or threat of great bodily injury, forcible sexual penetration, sodomy or oral copulation by force, violence or threat of great bodily injury.
In certain circumstances, minors can be tried as an adult. Those circumstances are crimes such as murder, arson causing great bodily injury, robbery, certain sex crimes, kidnapping for ransom, robbery or with great bodily harm, attempted murder, assault with a firearm, and other such serious offenses. Prosecutors have the discretion as to how to handle cases that can be filed in adult court. They can either file directly in adult court or can initiate a fitness hearing and have a judge decide the issue.
These are just of few of the intricacies involved in juvenile criminal defense. It is important to have an attorney who is dedicated to understanding fully the juvenile justice system, especially where there is the necessity of a fitness hearing. The best outcomes can happen in juvenile court, but you need an attorney there who knows how to get those outcomes.