Navigating the Juvenile Court System
Origins of Juvenile Cases
The differences between juvenile and adult prosecution begin at the initial police contact. These important distinctions are emphasized in the following documents dealing with the origins of a juvenile case.
Police Contact and Detention
A "minor" is a person under the age of 18. Laws and procedures governing the handling of a minor's case differ significantly from that of an adult. The Welfare & Institutions Code defines these laws and procedures. One of a minor's first points of contact with the Juvenile Justice system is a detention or arrest.
After a minor has been detained or arrested, the officer has several release options. In determining which of the options to take, the officer should always make the choice that is the least restrictive alternative for the minor, yet considers the best interests of the community and the minor. An officer may do any of the following given the above guidelines:
- Release the minor with no further action; (usually to parent/guardian)
- Deliver or refer the minor to a community agency to provide shelter, counseling or diversion services;
- Enroll minor in the police department diversion program;
- Release minor under 14 or who committed a misdemeanor, to parents/guardian with a "Promise To Appear" ["PTA"] ; or
- Deliver minor to Juvenile Hall without unnecessary delay.
- A minor who is 14 or older and arrested for the personal use of a firearm in commission or attempted commission of a felony or for an offense described in WIC 707(b) may not be released until minor is brought before a judicial officer.
- A minor who is 14 or older and arrested for the commission of a felony offense shall not be released until the minor, his parent, guardian, or relative, or both, have signed a written promise to appear provided by the probation officer, or has been given an order to appear in juvenile court at a certain date.
The Probation Department's Role
The Probation Department has vast discretion over most misdemeanor cases, and even has discretion over most felony cases for minors under the age of fourteen. A Probation Intake Officer does the initial screening of these cases. If the minor is in custody, the Probation Department makes a decision on whether or not to release the minor.
If the minor is released, then the case becomes an out-of-custody case. If the minor is released on home supervision, then the minor is still considered to be in custody.
If the minor is out of custody, the Probation Intake Officer will screen the case and make a determination of whether or not the case should be forwarded to the District Attorney's office for the filing of a petition. Otherwise, the case will remain with the Probation Department for informal supervision or other action.
Unlike proceedings in adult court, most juvenile court hearings are closed hearings and the public is generally excluded. Only authorized individuals are allowed to hear those closed hearings. Among those allowed access are victims, support person and those with a direct and legitimate interest in the specific case. However, the public is allowed access to certain cases, most of which are enumerated in Welfare and Institutions Code section 707; subdivision (b). The court must post in a conspicuous place, a list of all of the cases open to the public for that day. As a consequence of most juvenile court proceedings being closed, access to those juvenile court records is also limited.
Confidentiality of Proceedings and Disclosure of Records
Juvenile court proceedings are confidential. There are two general exceptions: (1) the prosecution witnesses may have up to 2 support persons present in the courtroom; and (2) victims may be present and have up to 2 support persons.
The Welfare and Institutions Code also limits the disclosure of juvenile records. Certain people (who are listed in the Code) may inspect the materials and petition a court to have them disclosed. The records can only be disclosed with a court order.
The initial hearing for an in custody case is a detention hearing. The Probation Officer sets
the hearing and notifies the parent or guardian of the hearing. At the hearing, the minor will be
informed of the pending charges contained in the Petition. Unlike adult court, there is no bail
in juvenile. The court will weigh several factors and make a ruling on whether to release the minor
or keep the minor detained. The court must release a minor unless one or more of the following
grounds for detention exist:
- Violation of a court order
- Escape from a commitment of the court
- Likely to flee jurisdiction
- Immediate and urgent necessity for the protection of minor
- Reasonably necessary for the protection of person or property of another
- At-risk of entering foster care placement (continuance in the home is contrary to the minor's welfare).
At the close of the detention hearing, the court will set a readiness hearing.
When an out-of-custody petition has been filed by the District Attorney's Office, the clerk of the court sets the initial court appearance called the Readiness Hearing. This is held 10 court days after the filing of the petition. The minor and his or her parents receive notice of the hearing by the court through first class mail.
If the minor fails to appear at the initial Readiness Hearing, the clerk issues a citation directing the parent or guardian to appear at another Readiness Hearing. The citation is personally served on the parent. If a minor still fails to appear for this hearing, the court may then request an affidavit for a warrant from the District Attorney's Office. The court may also issue a warrant of arrest for a parent or guardian.
The Readiness Hearing is the second court appearance for a minor who is in custody or was released at a Detention Hearing. A minor may accept an offer from the District Attorney and admit all or a portion of a petition. The matter will then be set for dispositional hearing, where a judge will pronounce a sentence.
If a case is not resolved at the Readiness Hearing, the next hearing is the Settlement Conference. A Settlement Conference is an opportunity for a judge to talk to the prosecutor and the minor's attorney. Discussions revolve around the offense, the minor, and what placement or program would be beneficial to the minor yet still protect the community. Although a judge will not have a social study report with all of the pertinent information about the minor, a judge can still indicate a case sentencing plan, provided the social study report does not list anything new or significant information which was not known at the time of the Settlement Conference. If the minor admits the petition, the case is set for a Dispositional Hearing. If the minor does not admit, the case is set for a Jurisdictional Hearing.
If a minor does not admit the charges and allegations in the petition, the case is set for a trial. Juvenile trials are called Jurisdictional Hearings or Adjudications. They are heard and decided by a judge, not a jury. Juveniles are not entitled to a jury trial unless they are being tried as adults. A judge will hear the evidence in the case as presented by the District Attorney's Office and the defense. The criminal rules of evidence apply to the hearing and the proof required is proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
If a minor does not waive time, a Jurisdictional Hearing is set 15 judicial days from the date of the Detention Hearing for an in-custody minor, and 30 calendar days from the initial court hearing for a minor who is out of custody.
If the minor admitted the petition or a court found the petition to be true after a Jurisdictional Hearing, the court will hold a Dispositional Hearing. The Dispositional Hearing is the Juvenile Court version of a sentencing hearing. At the Disposition Hearing, the judge declares the minor a ward of the court and then places the minor in a program or in custody. This is done to benefit the minor and protect the community.
If a minor is 16 years or older and is charged with committing certain serious offenses, the District Attorney's Office has the option of requesting a hearing to determine whether a minor is fit to be dealt with in the juvenile court system or should be tried as an adult. At the hearing a court will consider evidence related to the behavioral patterns and social history of the minor and make a decision to try the minor as a juvenile or an adult.
Officers, victims or Probation Officers can still be called in to court for hearings after a minor has admitted a petition.
Restitution hearings are set if the amount of restitution is disputed and was not resolved when the minor admitted the charges.
Probation Violation/Evidentiary hearings are set if the minor has violated specific conditions of probation, but not necessarily committed a new offense. The burden of proof in an evidentiary hearing for a probation violation is preponderance of the evidence and reliable hearsay is admissible.