Juvenile Court Process in California: From Arrest to Disposition

The juvenile court system in California plays a crucial role in administering justice for child offenders, individuals under 18 years of age accused of breaking the law. The process is designed to address young offenders' unique needs and circumstances, emphasizing rehabilitation and protecting their rights and interests.

Understanding the juvenile court process is paramount for various stakeholders, including minors and their families. The process differs significantly from the procedures followed in adult criminal cases, highlighting the need for in-depth knowledge and insights into juvenile law.

If your child has been accused of a crime in Los Angeles, schedule a consultation with our team at Lessem, Newstat & Tooson, LLP by calling (800) 462-7160.

Steps in the Juvenile Court Process

Recognizing the steps in the juvenile court process enables individuals to navigate the system more effectively. This knowledge helps families and legal professionals make informed decisions, including selecting appropriate legal strategies, gathering relevant evidence, and engaging with the proper court personnel.

Below is an overview of the stages in juvenile cases.

Arrest and Detention of Juveniles

When a minor is reported to have violated the law, it can lead to their arrest.

The arresting officer has several options for handling the situation, including:

  • Recording the arrest and releasing the child to their parent or guardian, allowing them to address the case outside of custody
  • Taking the child to an agency responsible for providing care and supervision for juveniles in conflict with the law
  • Issuing a Notice to Appear, instructing the minor and their parents to meet with a probation officer and determine the most suitable course of action
  • Citing the child and directing them to return to the police station
  • Detaining the child when the seriousness of the alleged offense or other factors warrant it

Juvenile Intake Process

The probation department plays a crucial role in the intake process. The department evaluates the case to determine an appropriate course of action that aligns with the child's best interests.

The probation officer comprehensively assesses the juvenile's background, circumstances, and potential risk factors. This assessment helps provide a deeper understanding of the factors that may have contributed to the minor's involvement in the alleged offense.

Following the assessment, several outcomes are possible:

  • Give the child a warning
  • Direct the child to participate in a voluntary program, such as counseling or educational interventions
  • Refer the case to a district attorney who decides whether to file charges (depending on the circumstances, the minor may be allowed to return home while awaiting the district attorney's decision or, in more severe cases, be kept in detention)

Juvenile Court Hearings

Several important hearings occur in the juvenile court process, each serving a distinct purpose.

These hearings include the following:

  • Detention hearing: This occurs shortly after the initial arrest. During this hearing, the judge reviews the case's circumstances and evidence to determine whether the minor should be released or kept in detention while awaiting further proceedings.
  • Motion hearings: The prosecution and defense discuss discovery-related matters involving exchanging information relevant to the case. Either side may file motions asking the judge to decide on specific aspects of the case.
  • Jurisdictional hearing: The judge reviews the evidence presented by the prosecution and defense to determine whether the accusations against the child are well-founded. Unless the minor has already admitted to the offense, the judge weighs the evidence and decides whether it is sufficient to establish the minor's responsibility. If the evidence is deemed insufficient, the case may be dismissed. However, if the judge finds the minor responsible, the matter proceeds to the punishment phase.
  • Dispositional hearing: The judge determines a suitable sentence or disposition based on the minor's responsibility for the offense. Punishments can range from allowing the child to return home under probationary conditions or formal supervision to removing the child from their home and placing them in the care of relatives, an agency, a probation camp, or a Secure Youth Treatment Facility.

Expungement and Cleaning of Juvenile Records

The benefits of expunging juvenile records are significant. It gives individuals a fresh start by keeping their past mistakes from public view. This removes barriers, which is particularly advantageous when searching for employment, applying for a driver's license, pursuing higher education opportunities, or finding a place to live. Expungement allows individuals to move forward without the burden of a criminal record hindering their prospects.

The process of expunging juvenile records involves different steps. In some cases, juvenile records are automatically expunged once the individual reaches a certain age or completes the terms of their sentence.

However, the individual must file a petition for a case ineligible for automatic expungement. They must also meet certain eligibility criteria. The individual must be 18 years of age or older, and the court must determine that the person has been rehabilitated. This means demonstrating that they have made positive changes, learned from their past mistakes, and are now leading a law-abiding life.

Rights of Minors in Juvenile Cases

In the juvenile court system, minors accused of crimes possess certain rights crucial for facilitating fairness and protecting their best interests throughout the legal process.

These rights include:

  • The right to legal representation: Every child facing juvenile charges has the right to have a lawyer. If the child cannot afford an attorney, the court will appoint one for them. It's important to note that the lawyer represents the child, not their parents or guardians.
  • The right to remain silent: This right ensures that minors cannot be compelled to make statements that may incriminate themselves. Following an arrest, the arresting officer must read the minor their Miranda rights.
  • The right to confront witnesses and present a defense: This right becomes particularly relevant during the jurisdictional hearing. At this hearing, the judge hears evidence presented by both the prosecution and the defense. The defense can challenge the prosecution's arguments, cross-examine witnesses, and present evidence supporting the minor's case.

Contact an Attorney Today

The juvenile justice process can be overwhelming and complex for minors and their families. That's why having a skilled and experienced criminal defense lawyer by your side is crucial to navigate the legal system and pursue a favorable outcome.

At Lessem, Newstat & Tooson, LLP, we provide representation in cases involving minors in Los Angeles. Call us at (800) 462-7160 or contact us online.