Juvenile Law

Juvenile Criminal Defense in California


If you’ve ever been arrested, you know how traumatic it can be. But what if you were a child? How would you withstand being handcuffed, funneled through mysterious proceedings and sent away for “rehabilitation” behind razor-wire fences.

According to the Burns Institute Interactive State Data Map for California, in 2007 there were 39,014 juveniles placed on probation and 15,989 juveniles placed in secure confinement. Sixty percent of probation wards, and 52% of secure confinement wards, were Latino.

In 2009, there were 204,696 juvenile arrests in California. Juvenile charges were filed in about half of those cases. The system got 60,891 new “wards of the court.”

Over 18,000 minors were placed in a secure facility or in the California Youth Authority. As a result of “get tough on juvenile crime” initiatives, 1,115 minors were sent to adult court to be tried as adults.

Even those children lucky enough to be sent “home on probation” now need to contend with the stigma and lasting repercussions of having a juvenile criminal record.

But here’s the good news: there are many options within the California juvenile court justice system that do not involve confinement. If your child has a run-in with the law, I might be able to help.

As a former Sheriff’s Deputy I now use inside knowledge to represent Juveniles.  I want to keep your child out of custody and help get your child’s life back on track.

In this article, I provide a comprehensive overview of the juvenile court justice system in California. I cover:

1. What is juvenile delinquency court?

1.1. Goal of rehabilitation

1.2. Sanctions are not designed for retribution

1.3. Problems with the juvenile justice system

2. Who gets tried in juvenile court?

2.1. Minors under 18 generally go to juvenile court

2.2. For certain crimes minors 14 and up must be tried as adults

2.3. For “707(b) offenses” minors can be tried as adults

2.4. Direct filings in adult court and “fitness hearings”

2.5. Termination of jurisdiction

3. What is the juvenile court process?

4. What could happen to my child?

4.1. Informal probation

4.2. Deferred entry of judgment

4.3. Formal probation at home or camp

4.4. CYA commitment

5. What are the lasting consequences of a
juvenile adjudication?

If you have further questions after reading this article, we invite you to contact us at the Law Office of William Daley for a FREE consultation.

1. What is juvenile delinquency court?

Juvenile delinquency court is a court dedicated to adjudicating felony and misdemeanor crimes allegedly committed by minors. Juvenile court also handles “status offenses” like truancy and curfew violations. Status offenses only constitute criminal acts when committed by juveniles.

This article deals with juvenile delinquency court. When I use the term “juvenile court” I’m referring to juvenile delinquency court.

602 proceedings

Technically, juvenile court is not part of the California criminal law system. It is part of the civil law system where cases are “adjudicated.”

Juvenile delinquency proceedings are sometimes referred to as “Section 602 proceedings” after the applicable section of California law that governs delinquency proceedings.

Judges hear cases in juvenile court. There are prosecutors and defense attorneys, but no juries. Juvenile court proceedings are generally confidential.

Juvenile court lingo

The judge does not find a minor “guilty” or “innocent” in the California juvenile court system. Instead, if the judge finds that the minor committed the crime alleged beyond a reasonable doubt, the judge “sustains the petition” filed by the district attorney.

There are a number of different “dispositions” (sentences) available in juvenile court. At the low end of the spectrum is informal probation. The minor never admits any allegations of wrongdoing and the charges are dismissed upon successful completion of the program.

At the other end of the spectrum is commitment to the California Youth Authority (“CYA”), California’s “prison” for minors. CYA is now called the Division of Juvenile Justice and housed within the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Most people still think of CYA as “CYA,” so we use the term CYA in this article.

Wards of the court

When the judge makes a minor a “ward of the court” it means that the court is taking over primary responsibility for control and treatment of the minor. A minor can be a ward of the court but still allowed to serve out probation at home.

In other cases, the minor might be placed in foster care, in a group home or in a county probation camp.

1.1. Goal of rehabilitation

In theory, the California juvenile justice system is designed to “rehabilitate” offenders. This is an important philosophical difference from the adult system.

When an adult is convicted of a crime and sentenced to jail or prison, the purpose is to punish the offender. But when a minor is placed on probation, or committed to camp or DJJ, the purpose is to rehabilitate the minor.

Kids in the juvenile court justice system are supposed to get the education, treatment and services they need to move past their crimes, reunite with their families and become productive citizens.

1.2. Sanctions are not designed for retribution

Just because the goal of the California juvenile court system is rehabilitation, that does not mean a child who disobeys the law gets off without punishment. The minor can be “sanctioned” for impermissible conduct but the sanctions are designed for discipline and not retribution.

Sanctions can include:

  • Payment Community service
  • Attendance in victim impact class
  • Placement in a foster home
  • Probation/parole conditions
  • Commitment to a juvenile hall, camp, or ranch
  • Commitment to CYA

1.3. Problems with the juvenile justice system

Regardless of its noble objectives, the juvenile court justice system in California has received extensive criticism for its failures. In a highly-publicized 2003 lawsuit called Farrell v. Allen, the state was sued for deplorable conditions at the California Youth Authority, including:

  • excessive use of force, like using mace on children while already restrained,
  • making kids attend “school” while locked in cages,
  • confining children in cells for 23 hours a day,
  • failing to provide children with adequate medical and mental health services,
  • utilizing psychotropic medications as a form of control, and
  • perpetuating a culture riddled with extreme, often gang-related violence.

In 2004, CYA entered into a consent decree agreeing to remedy the abuses. A special master appointed by the Alameda County Superior Court now oversees CYA.

“Realignment” from the state to the counties

As a result of litigation, cost and sentencing preferences, juvenile justice in California is undergoing a process of “realignment.” County probation departments are now responsible for treating, securing and rehabilitating all but the most serious and violent youth offenders (who can be committed to CYA).

As a result of systemic failures brought to light by litigation, and the high cost of state-level confinement, the California legislature passed Senate Bill 81 in 2007 to “realign” juvenile justice from the state level to the county level.

Through a series of funding initiatives and changes in the law, all but the most serious and violent youth offenders are now handled within county probation departments. Less than one percent of youth offenders are committed to CYA.

Riots and other violence periodically break out at probation camps for both boys and girls.

Rays of hope

Of course the system has many caring and devoted professionals dedicated to the mission of rehabilitation. Rays of hope emerge from CYA just as they do from county facilities.

As part of CYA’s Pups and Wards program, for example, children “rehabilitate” themselves while training rescue dogs for adoptive families. At Sonoma County’s rustic and fenceless probation camp, minors who have been unsuccessful elsewhere build self-esteem while constructing redwood picnic tables and fire pits.

2. Who gets tried in juvenile court?

Generally speaking, minors under the age of 18 are tried in the California juvenile court system. But there are cases in which younger minors can be tried in adult court.

2.1 Minors under 18 generally go to juvenile court

Pursuant to California Welfare & Institutions Code Section 602, juvenile court has jurisdiction over offenses allegedly committed by minors who are under the age of 18 at the time of the offense.

If someone commits a crime at age 17 but it is not discovered or tried until the minor is 20, the minor can still be tried in juvenile court.

2.2. For certain crimes minors 14 and up must be tried as adults

Minors accused of very serious crimes automatically get tried in adult court. These crimes are:

  • Murder with special circumstances, if the prosecutor alleges that the minor      personally killed the victim;
  • The following sex offenses, if the prosecutor alleges that the minor personally committed the offense and other extenuating circumstances:
    • Rape with force, violence or threat of great bodily harm,
    • Spousal rape with force, violence or threat of great bodily harm,
    • Forcible sex in concert with another,
    • Lewd and lascivious acts on a child under 14 with force, violence or       threat of great bodily injury,
    • Forcible  sexual penetration,
    • Sodomy  or oral copulation by force, violence or threat of great bodily       injury.

Arson causing great bodily injury or of an inhabited structure is one of the 30 “Section 707(b) offenses” that can lead to filing of charges against a juvenile in adult court. In some cases the prosecutor can elect to file directly against the minor in adult court. In other cases the prosecutor initiates a “fitness hearing” to let a judge decide the issue. Juveniles over 14 alleged to have committed a Section 707(b) offense are presumed to be unfit for juvenile court and they will be tried in adult court unless the judge decides that the minor would be better served by the juvenile system based on: (1) the degree of criminal sophistication exhibited by the minor, (2) whether the minor can be rehabilitated prior to the expiration of juvenile court jurisdiction, (3) the minor’s previous delinquent history, (4) success of previous attempts to rehabilitate the minor, and (5) the circumstances and gravity of the offenses alleged in the petition.

2.3. For “707(b) offenses” minors can be tried as adults

Under certain circumstances described below, minors alleged to have committed one of the 30 crimes listed in W&I Code 707(b) also can be tried in adult court.

The “Section 707(b) offenses” are:

  • Murder.
  • Arson causing great bodily injury or of an inhabited structure.
  • Robbery.
  • Rape with force, violence or threat of great bodily harm.
  • Sodomy by force, violence or threat of great bodily harm.
  • A lewd or lascivious act on a child under 14 with force, violence or threat of great bodily harm.
  • Oral copulation by force, violence or threat of great bodily harm.
  • Forcible nsexual penetration.
  • Kidnapping for ransom.
  • Kidnapping for purposes of robbery.
  • Kidnapping with bodily harm.
  • Attempted murder.
  • Assault with a firearm or destructive device.
  • Assault by means of force likely to produce great bodily injury.
  • Discharge of a firearm into an inhabited or occupied building.
  • An offense described in Section 1203.09 of the Penal Code against a person who is over 60 or disabled.
  • An offense described in Penal Code Section 12022.5 or Penal Code 12022.53 personal use of a firearm.
  • A felony offense in which the minor personally used a weapon listed Penal Code Section 12020(a).
  • A felony offense described in Penal Code 136.1 pc dissuading a witness or Penal Code Section 137 bribery of a witness.
  • Manufacturing, compounding, or selling one-half ounce or more of a salt or solution of a controlled substance specified in Health & Safety 11055(e).
  • A violent felony, which also would constitute a felony violation of Penal Code186.22(b) criminal street gang sentencing enhancement.
  • Escape, by the use of force or violence, from a county juvenile hall, home, ranch, camp, or forestry camp if great bodily injury is intentionally inflicted upon an employee of the juvenile facility.
  • Torture.
  • Aggravated mayhem.
  • Carjacking.
  • Kidnapping for purposes of sexual assault.
  • Kidnapping during a carjacking.
  • Penal Code Section 12034 drive-by-shooting.
  • Exploding a destructive device with intent to commit murder.
  • Voluntary manslaughter.

2.4. Direct filings in adult court and “fitness hearings”

Prosecutors have discretion as to how to handle to 707(b) offenses. They can either “file directly” in adult court or, if they want, they can initiate a “fitness hearing” and have a judge decide the issue.

Please see the related article Fitness Hearings in California for a more in-depth explanation of that subject.

Direct Filing – 16 years of age or older

The prosecutor can “direct file” against a minor who is 16 or older if the minor

  • is alleged to have committed a 707(b) offense, OR
  • has previously committed a felony when older than 14, AND is accused of committing
    • a felony where the victim was 65 or older or disabled, or
    • a felony constituting a hate crime, or
    • a felony that is gang-related.

Direct Filing – 14 years of age or older

The prosecutors can direct file against a minor who is 14 or older if the minor

  • is alleged to have committed an offense that if committed by an adult would be punishable by death or life imprisonment, OR
  • is alleged to have personally used a firearm during the commission or attempted commission of a felony, OR
  • is alleged to have committed a 707(b) offense in which any one or more of the following circumstances apply:
    • the minor has a previously committed a 707(b) offense, or
    • the crime was gang-related, or
    • the offense was a hate crime, or
    • the victim was 65 or older or disabled.

Example: Fifteen-year-old Alonza robs a convenience store in the Central Valley. He is armed with a gun. Even though this is Alonza’s first offense, it is a very serious one. He is charged with robbery, assault with a firearm, and violating Penal Code Section 12022.53 pc personal use of a firearm enhancement.

Under W&I Sec. 707(d)(2), the prosecutor directly files against Alonza in adult court. Alonza is not even given the opportunity for a fitness hearing.

Eventually the prosecutor and defense attorney work out a plea bargain that requires Alonza to serve 13 years in prison. But because Alonza is not available for an exception that would allow him to serve out his “adult” sentence at CYA, he is remanded to California state prison.

2.5. Termination of jurisdiction

Juvenile court jurisdiction terminates when the ward reaches the age of 21.

In cases where the minor committed a 707(b) offense and was committed to CYA, jurisdiction can last until the minor is 25 years old.

3. What in the juvenile court process?

The California juvenile court process begins with the arrest of a minor. Things may end right there, as the cops can decide to release the minor with a simple reprimand.

California Juvenile Court Process at a Glance

However, the cops also can deliver the minor to the county probation department, which may lead to detention at juvenile hall and filing of a “petition” against the minor. A petition is like a criminal complaint filed in adult court.

As describe in the related article The Juvenile Court Process in California, the process consists of several different hearings, including:

  • detention hearing (for minors in custody)
  • arraignment (for minors out of custody)
  • fitness hearing (in cases of 707(b) offenses)
  • jurisdiction hearing (the trial)
  • disposition hearing (for sentencing)

The law provides timelines and procedures for when and how each of these hearings takes place.

At each stage the prosecutor and defense attorney may reach a resolution and go straight to disposition. Also, if errors are made, there may be one or more re-hearings.

Parents are entitled to attend each court hearing.

“A boy is charged with misconduct. The boy is committed to an institution where he may be restrained of liberty for years….His world becomes a building with whitewashed walls, regimented routine and institutional hours….his world is peopled by guards, custodians, state employees, and delinquents confined with him for anything from waywardness to rape and homicide. In view of this, it would be extraordinary if our Constitution did not require the procedural regularity and the exercise of care implied in the phrase due process. Under our Constitution, the condition of being a boy does not justify a kangaroo court.”

– United States Supreme Court, In Re Gault, 387 U.S. 1, 28 (1967), seminal Supreme Court case confirming juveniles are entitled to due process in delinquency court proceedings.

4. What could happen to my child?

A number of different sentencing options (called “dispositions”) are available in the California juvenile delinquency system. They range from informal probation to commitment to CYA.

4.1. Informal probation

When a case is not very serious, the minor might be eligible for informal probation under W&I Sec. 654 or W&I Sec. 725.

Informal probation might be available in a nonviolent first-time offense like Penal Code 594 pc vandalism or Penal Code 602 pc trespass.

W&I Sec. 654 diversion

Under California Welfare & Institutions Code Section 654, the case is “diverted” to probation before a petition filing takes place.

In an effort to “adjust the situation which brings the minor within the jurisdiction of the court or creates the probability that the minor will soon be within that jurisdiction,” the probation officer will develop a plan for the minor that can last no longer than six months.

The program generally includes education and counseling.

If the minor fails to perform, the probation officer can still initiate formal petition proceedings with the juvenile court.

W&I Sec. 725 informal probation

Under Welfare & Institutions Code Section 725, the judge makes the decision to place the minor on informal probation. The difference from W&I Sec. 654 informal probation is that a petition is actually filed…but the petition is “put on hold”…so the minor gets a second chance.

The minor never admits guilt and so long as the minor complies with the probation conditions the petition gets dismissed.

Probation conditions generally include school attendance, counseling for both the minor and his or her parents and curfew. Other possible conditions are drug testing and restitution.

W&I Section 725 informal probation lasts for six months.

4.2. Deferred entry of judgment

Another option is deferred entry of judgment under W&I Sec. 790. Deferred entry of judgment (or “DEJ” for short) requires the minor admit guilt as to the petition’s allegations, but results in a dismissal of the charges upon successful completion of the DEJ program.

DEJ is available for first time felonies that are not Section 707(b) offenses. It lasts between 12 and 36 months.

Example: Seventeen-year-old Martha is caught in a car with marijuana hidden in the gas tank. Martha is charged with felony Health and Safety 11359 hs possession of marijuana for sale and Health and Safety 11360 transporting marijuana. This is Martha’s first criminal offense.

Martha experienced truancy problems in the past but lately has been doing well in a new educational program. She has a stable home life. The probation department believes Martha is amenable to education, treatment and rehabilitation.

Even though Martha’s crime evidences a degree of sophistication, and courts don’t want to send the message that offenses like Health and Safety 11359 and Health and Safety 11360 transporting marijuana are permissible, Martha is eligible for DEJ.

If she successfully completes her DEJ program, Martha can withdraw her admission of guilt and the petition will be dismissed.

4.3. Formal probation at home or camp

If a California juvenile court declares the minor to be a ward of the court, the court can sentence the minor to a term of probation. Sometimes wards can complete their probation at home (even though they are wards of the court).

In other cases, the court will assign the ward to a “suitable placement” in a relative’s home or in a group home.

Probation terms can include anything reasonably necessary for the rehabilitation of the minor, including:

  • mandatory school attendance,
  • curfew restrictions,
  • substance abuse counseling,
  • not hanging out with certain people,
  • community service,
  • graffiti removal, and
  • restitution.

Minors needing a greater level of structure can be sent to “probation camp” for a period of between three months and one year.

There are approximately 70 probation camps across the state. Most camps are dormitory-based environments with a structured daily schedule involving education and treatment programs.

A handful of other kinds of probation camps also exist in California, including “wilderness/fire camps,” which emphasize forestry and firefighting training, military-style “boot camps” and family-style “Missouri-model” camps, which focus on small-scale, intensive treatment.

4.4. CYA commitment

Aside from adult prison, the most serious penalty a minor can face is commitment at CYA.

Only minors whose most recent adjudication is for a 707(b) offense or one of several offenses requiring sex offender registration in California can be sent to CYA.

5. What are the lasting consequences of a juvenile adjudication?

Unfortunately, a juvenile adjudication can follow a child into the future.

Juvenile convictions (or “sustained petitions” as they’re formally called) count as strikes for purposes of California’s Three Strikes Law. Further, the California Rules of Court allow adult courts to look at juvenile adjudications in making probation and sentencing decisions.

Juvenile adjudications can lead to sex offender registration in California and even civil confinement as a sexually violent predator “SVP” in California.

However, in cases of less serious juvenile convictions, your child may be able to seal his or her juvenile record if your child fulfills his or her sentence and remains crime-free for a certain period of time.

I Can Help…

If your child has been arrested, we invite you to call us at 619-239-1905.


Call us today (619) 238-1905