Can someone under the age of 18 be charged in adult court?
Yes. People under the age of 18 may be charged in adult criminal court under certain circumstances. When certain crimes are alleged to have been committed, the district attorney is required to file the charges in adult court. Such crimes include allegations that a youth personally killed someone and a special circumstances is alleged, and also certain sex crimes. The district attorney may also file charges in adult criminal court if the youth is 16 or 17 years old and commits an offense listed under Welfare and Institutions Code section 707, subdivision (b). These offenses constitute “juvenile strikes.” Additionally, the district attorney has discretion to file charges in adult criminal court if the youth if 14, 15, 16, or 17 years old and the alleged offense is: (1) one for which an adult could receive a sentence of death or life imprisonment; (2) the youth is accused of personally using a firearm while committing a felony; or (3) the offense is a juvenile strike and one or more of the following is true: (a) the youth has previously been found to have committed a juvenile strike; (b) the offense is alleged to have been committed for the benefit of, at the direction of, or in association with, a criminal street gang; (3) the offense was a hate crime, or (4) the alleged victim was 65 years of age or older, or disabled.
What happens when someone under the age of 18 is charged with a crime?
A youth who is charged with committing a crime, with habitual truancy, or with incorrigibility, comes within the jurisdiction of the juvenile delinquency court. After a youth is arrested, the youth may be released to a parent and cited into court at some future date or transported to a juvenile hall. The police then submit their reports to the District Attorney’s Office or the Probation Department depending on the crime. If the District Attorney’s Office decides to charge the youth with a crime, the matter is set for arraignment in juvenile court.
At the arraignment an attorney is appointed to represent the youth. Usually the court will also order the probation department to prepare a report which details the youth’s history at home and at school and will help determine whether court intervention in the youth’s life is necessary. The court will usually set a next court date, a pretrial or pre plea hearing. If the matter is not resolved at the next court date, the case is usually calendared for adjudication, the equivalent of a bench trial. Youths are not entitled to a jury trial for matters handled in juvenile delinquency court.
If the charges are admitted or found true at adjudication, a disposition hearing is held. At the disposition hearing, the bench officer decides what must be done to rehabilitate the youth. The bench officer could order that the youth complete informal probation, be returned home on probation, be sent to a group home, be sent to a county-run juvenile camp, or in extreme cases, be sent to the Department of Juvenile Justice. In all juvenile cases, the bench officer tries to consider the unique needs of the child and find ways to turn his or her life around before it is too late.
Throughout the proceedings, a youth is represented by a lawyer appointed by the court. This lawyer is usually a public defender. As in the adult court, if there is a conflict of interest between the youth and some other youth or an adult, which makes it improper for the Public Defender to represent the youth, the court will appoint other counsel. If the youth is represented by a Deputy Public Defender, that attorney will have the benefit of the input of psychiatric social workers employed by the Office of the Public Defender to assist the attorney in presenting treatment plans to the court its consideration.
If the charged offense is serious, the District Attorney might file a motion to request that the youth be treated as an adult. The court makes the ultimate decision whether the youth is “fit” to be treated within the juvenile court, or will be transferred to the adult criminal court for prosecution. This procedure is called a Fitness Hearing.
The Juvenile Dependency Court has jurisdiction over cases involving abused, neglected or abandoned children. The Public Defender is not appointed on dependency cases, but rather, such matters are handled by attorneys who specialize in this area of law. For information on dependency cases and attorneys who handle them, contact the Department of Children and Family Services at http://dcfs.lacounty.gov.
My child, who is under 18, has been arrested and needs drug treatment, mental health treatment, or specialized education. Can the Public Defender help?
There are programs available to youths to deal with problems involving drug abuse, mental health issues and specialized educational needs. These programs are provided through various state and county agencies and can be accessed by parents themselves or with the help of private advocates. If your child is represented by the Public Defender’s Office, please alert the lawyer your child’s drug, school or mental health needs so that our office can begin the referral process at the earliest possible time. Also, any records you have which relate to these problems should be shown to the lawyer. If the Juvenile Court is not made aware of the problems, the source of a behavioral problem might go undiscovered and untreated, and the youth may not receive the full benefit of the resources available.
What happens at a Fitness Hearing?
Under certain circumstances, the district attorney may petition the juvenile court to find a youth “unfit” for treatment in juvenile court, and to send the case to be filed in adult court. A fitness hearing is a proceeding that the attorney appointed for the delinquency matter will handle. If a youth is represented by a deputy public defender, a psychiatric social worker, resource attorney, and paralegal may also be assigned to work on the case. For the fitness hearing, it is extremely important to have a complete history of the youth’s family life, education, mental health history, and prior juvenile dependency and delinquency court involvement. In making the determination of whether a youth is “fit” or “unfit” for juvenile delinquency court, the bench officer will take into consideration five criteria: (1) the degree of criminal sophistication exhibited by the youth, (2) whether the youth can be rehabilitated prior to the expiration of the juvenile court’s jurisdiction, (3) the youth’s previous delinquent history, (4) the success of previous attempts by the juvenile court to rehabilitate the youth, and (5) the circumstances and gravity of the offense alleged in the petition to have been committed by the youth.
Emancipation: A person under 18 years is an emancipated youth if any of the following conditions is satisfied:
1. The person has entered into a valid marriage, whether or not the marriage has been dissolved.
2. The person is on active duty with the armed forces of the United States.
3. The person has received a declaration of emancipation pursuant to Family Code section 7122.
A youth may petition the superior court of the county in which the youth resides for a declaration of emancipation if the youth (1) is at least 14 years of age, (2) willing lives apart from his or her parents or guardian with their consent or acquiescence, and (3) is managing his or her own financial affairs, (4) with a source of income that is not derived from any criminal activity. (Family Code § 7120). An emancipated minor shall be considered an adult for a number of different purposes. (See Family Code § 7050.) The legislature has commanded that proceedings to emancipate should be as simple and inexpensive as possible. Clerks of the superior courts are required to have forms suitable for use by youths acting as their own counsel. (Family Code § 7110.)
How do I seal my juvenile delinquency record?
There are now two ways to seal your juvenile delinquency record, one way is under Welfare and Institutions Code § 781 and the other is under Welfare and Institutions Code §786. To qualify for sealing under Welfare and Institutions Code § 786 you must satisfactorily complete your grant of formal or informal probation. As long as you are not on probation for a charge listed in Welfare and Institutions Code § 707(b), your case should be automatically dismissed and sealed upon the successful completion of probation, which is determined by the Judge overseeing your case.
If you are not eligible to have your record sealed under WIC § 786, you may file a petition to seal under WIC § 781. To qualify, you must be at least 18 years of age, or five years must have passed since your juvenile probation ended, last arrest occurred, or last case was closed. Once you have met those criteria, you will need to complete and file a form called “Petition to Seal Juvenile Records and Court Order (DLQ003).” You can find this form online at http://www.lasuperiorcourt.org/forms/pdf/DLQ003.pdf or you may request the form from the juvenile clerk’s office at any courthouse that handles juvenile delinquency matters. Once your form has been completed you need to file it with the juvenile clerk’s office at the juvenile delinquency court that heard your most recent case.
If the court agrees to seal your record by either process, the proceedings in juvenile court are treated as if they never happened. That means if anyone ever asks you, “Have you ever been arrested?” “Do you have a criminal record?” or even “Do you have a sealed record?” you can answer “No.”
Keep in mind that even if you haven’t sealed your record, a juvenile sustained petition or admission to committing a crime is not considered a “conviction” for any purposes. Therefore, if anyone asks you, “Have you been convicted of a crime?” you can legally answer “No,” even if you have not sealed your record.