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Overview of the Juvenile Court System in California

Posted by Dmitry Gorin | Aug 16, 2021

Review of the California Juvenile Justice System and Common Crimes

When a minor under the age 18 allegedly commits a crime in the state of California, their case will normally be handled through the juvenile court system.

The same laws apply to illegal behavior by a juvenile as well as an adult, but the procedures and penalties used to process juvenile crimes is significantly different from an adult criminal court.

For example, there is no jury to decide guilt or innocence and entire process is much less formal in front of the judge.

Overview of Juvenile Crimes in California
In California, minors who commit a crime will be processed through the juvenile court system.

Further, in a juvenile delinquency court in California, a trial is called an “adjudication hearing," where the judge is the sole decider if the minor actually committed the crime, and whether they should be punished.

The prosecutor is responsible for proving the minor committed the crime beyond a reasonable doubt.

Similar to an adult court, both sides are allowed to make oral arguments and present their evidence at the juvenile hearing.

When a minor is arrested by law enforcement for any crime in California, it can be highly traumatic both for the child and for the parents.

The idea of having your child placed behind bars, declared a "ward of the court," declared guilty without a jury trial, and shuffled off to a camp or detention facility—it can all seem quite frightening.

The reality, as noted, is that the California juvenile court system operates quite differently than the criminal justice system for adults.

It is designed to be more rehabilitative than punitive. In many cases, with the help of a skilled lawyer, minor defendants may never face incarceration or even a criminal record.

Our Los Angeles criminal defense attorneys are providing below what you need to know if you are a young person, or the parent of a young person, facing criminal charges.

Overview of Juvenile Crimes and the Court System in California

When someone under age 18 breaks a criminal law in California, it falls under the jurisdiction of the Juvenile Court System, which is a separate system from the criminal justice system and operates much differently.

The main goals of the criminal justice system for adults are to:

  • punish the offenders, and
  • protect society from those convicted of a crime.

By contrast, juvenile courts aim to rehabilitate children so they can live productive lives as law-abiding citizens when they grow up.

Overview of Juvenile Crimes and the Court System in California
California juvenile courts are primarily designed to rehabilitate minors rather than punish.

This difference in philosophy greatly impacts how the system "penalizes" minors for their crimes.

The criminal laws recognize that in a minor is generally less morally culpable than a similarly situated defendant who is an adult.

Thus, the juvenile investigative and court process will focus on rehabilitation rather than punishment, which is especially true for non-violent first-time offenders. 

Criminal cases that are normally prosecuted in a formal adult court are diverted to an informal system of probationary supervision in juvenile court.

In cases where a minor is charged with a serious crime, a juvenile petition will be filed, which is the equivalent of a criminal complaint or indictment in adult court system.

Once a petition has been filed and the prosecutor and defense lawyer can't reach a negotiated settlement, then the case will proceed to an adjudication hearing in front of a judge only.

Adjudication hearings are a chance for a minor to defend themselves against the charges. They have some similarities to an adult court, such as the right to:

  • have a lawyer,
  • present a defense,
  • against self-incrimination,
  • subpoena witnesses

If the minor is remanded to custody, then they have a legal right to have the adjudication hearing with 15 court days from the date of detention.

If they are not in custody, then the right to the hearing must be within 30 calendar days after the petition was filed, but these time periods are regularly extended.

Common Crimes Committed by Juveniles

There are a wide range of misdemeanor and felony crimes that are committed by juveniles in the state of California. Some of the most common are listed below:

  • Penal Code 594 PC – vandalism,
  • Penal Code 594.6 – possession of graffiti tools,
  • Penal Code 459 PC – burglary,
  • Penal Code 602 PC – trespassing,
  • Penal Code 484 PC – petty theft,
  • Penal Code 487 PC – grand theft auto,
  • Penal Code 240 – assault,
  • Penal Code 211 PC – robbery,
  • Penal Code 459.5 – shoplifting,
  • Vehicle Code 10851 VC – joyriding,
  • Minor in possession of alcohol or marijuana,
  • Weapons charges,
  • Gang crimes,
  • Sexting.

How Juvenile Court Differs from the Criminal Justice System

Although the Juvenile Court System processes minors who have allegedly committed crimes, it is actually part of the civil law system in California rather than the criminal law system.

As a result, it operates by different rules and even uses different terminologies than the criminal justice system. Among the main differences:

  • Cases against minors are "adjudicated" rather than "tried," and proceedings are "hearings" rather than "trials."
  • Adult criminal cases are tried by juries; juvenile cases are heard before a judge who determines the outcome.
  • Criminal charges against juveniles are "petitions" rather than "charges." If the judge determines the defendant committed the crime, they will "sustain the petition" instead of "convict." The judge does not declare the minor "guilty" or "innocent."
  • In juvenile court, "sentences" are called "dispositions." Similarly, any punishments meted out are called "sanctions."

Readers should note that the California laws governing criminal cases is almost always the same in juvenile court as adult court. For example, Penal Code 459 PC burglary is still a burglary if committed by a 14-year-old.

What Happens When a Juvenile Is Arrested for a Crime in California?

When authorities believe a minor committed a crime, the minor is arrested and will appear in Juvenile Court under a petition. The judge will decide based on the evidence presented whether the petition is true.

The two types of petitions for juvenile offenses are:

  • 601 petition—these petitions allege "status offenses," which are crimes only children commit (e.g., truancy, breaking curfew). If sustained, the juvenile is categorized as a "status offender."
  • 602 petition—per Section 602 of the Welfare and Institutions Code, these are equivalent to misdemeanor or felony charges if the offender were 18 or older. If sustained, the juvenile is classified a "delinquent" and made a "ward of the court," meaning the court now takes responsibility for control and treatment of the minor. The judge will now determine a "disposition" deemed most suited to rehabilitate the child.

Possible Penalties (Sanctions) for Minors 

The sanctions for juvenile crimes are intended to rehabilitate rather than punish. The judge may base the determination on many factors, including the severity of the offense and the child's prior history. Possible penalties may include:

  • Informal probation—the most lenient penalty, the minor can return home and does not admit to wrongdoing. All allegations are dismissed upon completion of any mandated programs.
  • Fines or restitution (i.e., repaying a victim for damage done or items stolen);
  • Required community service;
  • Formal probation;
  • Placement in a foster home;
  • Commitment to detention—for more serious crimes, the judge may mandate that the minor be committed to detention for a period of time not to exceed the minor's 18th birthday. This detention may be served at a camp or a detention facility under the Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ), formerly known as the California Youth Authority (CYA).

Further, as noted, the criminal laws in California recognize that in some ways a minor is less morally culpable than a similarly situated adult defendant.

Thus, the juvenile investigative and court process will primarily focus on rehabilitation rather than punishment, particularly for non-violent first-time offenders. 

When Are Juveniles Tried as Adults?

When a minor age 16 or over allegedly commits a serious crime listed under California Welfare and Institutions Code Section 707(b) WIC, the judge may opt to hold a transfer hearing to move the minor into the criminal justice system to be tried as an adult.

If convicted, the juvenile will serve their sentence in the adult prison system according to the law. The list of Section 707(b) includes, but is not limited to:

  • Murder/Attempted Murder under Penal Code 664/187 PC,
  • Robbery under Penal Code 211 PC,
  • Rape under Penal Code 261 PC,
  • Oral copulation by force under Penal Code 287 PC,
  • Forcible foreign object under Penal Code 289 PC,
  • Kidnapping under Penal Code 207 and 209 PC,
  • Assault with a firearm under Penal Code 245(a)(2) PC,
  • Carjacking under Penal Code 215 PC
  • Torture under Penal Code 206 PC,
  • Manufacturing or selling a controlled substance under Health and Safety Code 11379.6 HS,
  • A violent felony which would be considered a violation of criminal street gang sentencing enhancement under Penal Code 186.22 PC.

A petition to certify a juvenile to adult court is most common in murder cases and very serious felony offenses committed by juveniles aged 16 or 17 who have prior criminal histories.

Criminal Defense for Juvenile Offenses

In California, there are many distinctions between juvenile court procedures and adult court.

If your child is under investigation, or already arrested for a crime, you will need to seek legal help from a criminal defense lawyer with experienced handling minors.

Criminal Defense for California Juvenile Offenses
Contact our defense lawyers for a consultation.

Under California Welfare and Institutions Code 654, your child's case could get diverted to informal probation before a petition filing occurs.

If they are granted informal probation, they won't admit wrongdoing and the charges will be dismissed after completing the program.

They could be a ward of the court, but still serve their probation at home. In other cases, they might be placed in foster care, group home, juvenile hall, or in a Los Angeles County probation camp.

If your child was convicted of a crime and served their sentence, they could petition the court to seal or destroy the record of their conviction once they turn 18 years old, which can improve their future opportunities.

Eisner Gorin LLP is based in Los Angeles County and has two office locations. Contact us for an initial consultation at (877) 781-1570.

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About the Author

Dmitry Gorin

Dmitry Gorin is a licensed attorney, who has been involved in criminal trial work and pretrial litigation since 1994. Before becoming partner in Eisner Gorin LLP, Mr. Gorin was a Senior Deputy District Attorney in Los Angeles Courts for more than ten years. As a criminal tri...

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