Overview of Juvenile Delinquency

Juvenile Dependency Process

When a person under the age of 18 commits a crime, the case is usually not handled in the adult criminal courts.  Instead, the case likely will go through Juvenile Delinquency.  In other words, juvenile delinquency is the children’s version of the criminal court system.

Don’t be fooled, however, by the fact that juvenile delinquency is a different system than the criminal courts.  An adverse finding in juvenile delinquency can have many of the same consequences as defendants in adult court.  These include: deportation, jail/prison time, denial of educational opportunities, priorability in future crimes, etc.

Fortunately, a minor facing a delinquency case is not without recourse.  The U.S. and California Constitutions guarantee, to minors in delinquency proceedings, many of the same rights enjoyed by adult defendants.  These include: right to challenge a Fourth Amendment violation, right to an attorney, right to confront and cross exam adverse witnesses, etc.

Unfortunately, many criminal defense attorneys are not well versed in delinquency-specific rules.  And these rules can have an enormous impact in delinquency cases.  For example, unlike adult cases, a delinquency case does not involve a “complaint,” “indictment,” or “information.”  Rather, the charging document is in the form of a “petition to adjudge minor as a ward of the court.”  Other differences, just to name a few, include:

• In juvenile cases, the minor is not entitled to bail.  In other words, the minor may need to stay in juvenile hall until the case is resolved!  

• In juvenile cases, the minor is not “convicted” of a crime.  Rather, the judge will make a “true finding.”

• In most juvenile cases, the minor is not entitled to a jury trial.  The judge alone can make a “true finding” and punish the minor.

Other than these procedural and substantive differences, juvenile delinquency also differs from adult cases in its potential for leniency.  Unlike in adult cases, delinquency cases have the stated purpose of ensuring the minor’s wellbeing.  As such, the judge must take into account what will be best for the minor.  This is extremely powerful because this allows a skilled juvenile delinquency defense attorney to advocate for an outcome that is specifically designed to help the minor.  

Think about it this way: what helps a teenage boy accused of vandalism more?  Custody time in juvenile hall? Or counseling and parental supervision?  

A skilled juvenile delinquency defense attorney can strategically craft a plan to convince the court that leniency is appropriate and desirable.  Of course, this requires experience, patience, diligence, and trust between the minor and the attorney.  This is why it is so important to have a delinquency attorney the minor and the minor’s family can trust: the best delinquency outcomes are the fruits of cooperation, preparation, and skill.

What happens when my child is arrest?

If you son/daughter is arrested and held in juvenile hall, you will be notified by law enforcement.  From there, a court date will be scheduled for your child to appear for the “detention hearing.”  

Before the detention hearing, you will likely receive calls from law enforcement and/or the probation department.  They will interview you about your child, his schooling, your family background, and other incidences of misbehavior.  It is important to keep in mind that anything you say in these interviews can be used against you or your child!  

Having an attorney to be your family’s spokesperson can often be beneficial at this stage.  Further, in some cases, a skilled delinquency defense attorney may be able to work out a diversion program BEFORE a case even gets filed!  In other words, your child may NEVER have to go in front of a judge if a pre-file diversion program is granted.

If a petition is filed, your child will appear for the detention hearing.  This is very similar to an arraignment in adult court.  The judge will: 1) ask if the minor admits or denies the alleged wrongdoings, 2) ensure that the minor is represented by an attorney, and 3) decide whether to keep the minor in custody.  The key difference in a detention hearing is that a minor is NOT entitled to bail!  In other words, if you and your attorney cannot convince the judge to let your child home, your child must stay in juvenile hall until the case ends; even if your child is eventually found innocent!

Fortunately, with proper preparation, a skilled delinquency defense attorney can make a strong pitch to the judge that the minor belongs home.  For example, creating a set of proposed “house rules” to discipline the minor, taking away the minor’s Internet and/or gaming privileges, ensuring that an adult will be home with the minor at all times, etc.  By attending court with a persuasive plan, you can make a strong impression to the judge that your family has the situation under control, and convince him/her that the minor does not need state interference.

Will my child be “convicted?”

The technical answer is “no.”  This is because a minor is not “convicted” in delinquency cases; rather, the judge merely makes a “true finding.”  Unfortunately, that’s where the good news ends.

A juvenile true finding, while it is technically different from an adult conviction, can have many of the same adverse effects as adult convictions.  In some cases, the juvenile true finding can in fact be used in adult cases as “prior conviction enhancements.”

Fortunately, delinquency law affords minors many delinquency-specific methods to avoid a “true finding.”  For example, the attorney can motion the court for a diversion program, or agree to a “deferred entry of judgment.”  Even if your child suffered a true finding, he/she may be entitled to “seal” the true finding.  

These delinquency-specific rules are, comparatively speaking, much more lenient than adult dispositions.  As such, it is of the utmost importance that your attorney explores all these avenues. 

It cannot be stressed enough how important these delinquency-specific rules are.  Many of these rules can help your child avoid a true finding altogether.  Sealing allows your child to NEVER have to tell anyone about the case!  This includes colleges, employers, etc.

In today’s ultra-competitive education and employment market, your child needs a clean slate to be as competitive as possible.  A skilled delinquency defense attorney can fight for him/her, and make that possibility a reality.


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