California Juvenile Court: How it Works

May 06, 2017 by Seppi Esfandi in Attorney  Criminal Defense   Leave a Comment
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The Purpose of Juvenile Court

In one of the landmark US Supreme Court criminal cases in the areas of juvenile delinquency, Kent v US 383 US 541 (1966), the Court described the states’ juvenile court system as the “parens patriae” of juveniles adjudicated under criminal law. This description literally means “parent of the fatherland” and provides a good basis for understanding the philosophy of the juvenile criminal courts in taking on a kind of parental role in protecting the minor child’s best interests.

What this means is that these courts will actively consider and pursue the protection, care, custody and maintenance of children who have committed crimes as well as possible, within the bounds of society’s interest in ensuring public safety and justice. In striving towards finding this balance, juvenile courts focus on the rehabilitation of the minor – instead of punishment, the objective of adult criminal justice – so that these children too can become productive, law-abiding members of society.

This beneficial interest to the minor is so important that if the court finds it is improbable for the minor to benefit from pertinent remedial treatments available, the minor will not be committed to the Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ). If this happens, the court should dismiss the case completely.

The Juvenile Court System in California

In California, a person who was under 18 when he or she committed a crime will come under the jurisdiction of the “juvenile court”. To be a “child” in the meaning intended under the juvenile justice system is not to be old enough so as to be held criminally responsible for your acts. In essence, the juvenile court is a division of the superior court, the trial court in California, which hears juvenile delinquency cases.

The juvenile court is considered to be a civil court, despite the fact that it hears criminal cases. Juvenile proceedings are typically characterized as non-adversarial and informal proceedings.

The law governing such juvenile delinquency proceedings comes from various sources, including the Welfare and Institutions Code, the California Penal Code, and California Rules of Court.

The juvenile system works differently than other court systems. For instance, the juvenile court will not “convict” a minor; but rather, the minor comes “within the provisions of the Welfare and Institutions Code”.

Also, minors do not enter a plea of “guilty” or “not guilty”; instead, a minor will “admit” or “deny” an offense. Minors are not “sentenced” to jail, but instead “committed” to juvenile hall, a ranch or to the Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ). In order to gain a better understanding of some of the proceedings used by the juvenile court system, a timeline overview is presented next, starting with the distinction between formal and informal proceedings.

Informal Probation (no formal proceedings) – Not all juvenile court cases will end in formal proceedings (see below, 1 through 9). If the prosecutor or probation officer decides, based on several factors, that informal proceedings would be a better option for the minor under the facts presented, then no formal charge is entered against the minor. However, the minor will still have to take part in one or more remedial measures, such as paying a fine, attending counseling or even entering probation. This is referred to as informal probation. It must be granted by the court before an admission (not afterwards) and can last up to six months.

One especially important thing to note about informal probation is that it will not protect a minor from the DMV consequences if the minor committed a DUI offense (Vehicle Code §13105 & Welf & I C §§257-258 & 654.4). Also of note is that the court will not grant informal probation for minors having committed certain categories of crimes. For instance, it is quite unusual for a minor to be placed in informal probation if he or she committed a felony at the age of 14 or older. The court will only allow this under special circumstances where the court is convinced that the minor’s best interests will be served in informal probation.

Also, minors having committed Welf & I C §707(b) offenses (see below – considered very severe offenses), or offenses including a) the sale of controlled substances, b) possession for sale of controlled substances, c) possession of controlled substances at school or d) violating PC §186.22 can generally not qualify for informal probation. Then again, it is possible that the court could make a finding as to unusual circumstances, in which rare event it might grant the minor informal probation as an exception to the general rule. Section 186.22 of the California Penal Code addresses violent street gang crimes.

Timeline of Formal Proceedings – If the prosecutor or probation officer does decide to initiate formal proceedings, the timeline and procedure from the time of filing the petition will work more or less according to this basic outline:

  1. The prosecutor or probation officer will file a petition in juvenile court;
  2. This will be followed by the first hearing;
  3. The first hearing is followed by an arraignment: an arraignment, one of the first steps in the formal charging procedure, is the formal reading of the criminal charge in the minor’s presence, and usually takes place at the time of the first hearing;
  4. A detention hearing takes place if the minor is held in custody;
  5. The matter is then either resolved by a plea at the first hearing, or at a subsequent hearing by a plea, or the prosecutor or the court dismisses the case;
  6. A fitness hearing, if a determination needs to be made as to whether to try the minor as an adult (based on severity of the offense);
  7. A “jurisdiction hearing” (a trial) is held;
  8. Based on the outcome of the jurisdictional hearing, if the court finds the minor has committed the offense charged, then it will “sustain” the petition and sentence the minor, or set a “disposition” (sentencing) hearing (normally less severe than adult courts);
  9. A minor has an opportunity to petition the court to seal the minor’s records, but this may not be the case where a minor adjudicated delinquent has committed a serious or violent offense.

Three Strikes in Juvenile Proceedings – Under California’s Three Strikes Law (California Penal Code §§ 667(b) – (i) & 1170.2), juvenile adjudications can be used as “strikes” if the juvenile is later convicted and:

  • The defendant was 16 or older when he/she committed the offense;
  • The prior offense is a “serious” or “violent” crime as defined in the California Penal Code;
  • The defendant appeared to be a fit and proper subject for purposes of juvenile law;
  • The defendant was made a ward of the court (under 18 years of age and unable to manage his or her own assets) under California’s Welfare and Institutions Code § 602, the reason being that the juvenile defendant committed one of the offenses listed under the Welf & I C §707(b) or Pen C §§667(d)(3)(D) or 1170.12(b)(3)(D); or
  • The prior offense is listed under California’s Welfare and Institutions Code § 707(b), enumerating 30 specific offenses, which are:
    1. Murder
    2. Arson of an inhabited building (see PC §451(b))
    3. Robbery
    4. Rape with force or violence or threat of great bodily harm
    5. Sodomy by force, violence, duress, menace, or threat of great bodily harm
    6. Lewd or lascivious conduct (see PC §288(b))
    7. Oral copulation by force, violence, duress, menace, or threat of great bodily harm
    8. Sexual penetration by force, violence, duress, menace, or threat of great bodily harm or retaliation (see PC §289(a))
    9. Kidnapping for ransom
    10. Kidnapping for purpose of robbery
    11. Kidnapping with bodily injury
    12. Attempted murder
    13. Assault with a firearm or destructive device
    14. Assault by any means of force likely to produce great bodily injury
    15. Discharge of a firearm into an inhabited dwelling or occupied building
    16. An attempt at of an offense inflicting great bodily harm against specified classes of persons, namely the elderly or disabled persons (see PC §1203.09) including persons aged 60 and older, a person who is blind, a paraplegic, a quadriplegic, a person who uses a wheelchair and the person committing the crime knows this
    17. A felony or an attempt to commit a felony while being armed (see PC §§12022.5 & 12022.53)
    18. A felony where a minor used a weapon that is listed under PC §12020(a)
    19. A felony to prevent or dissuade a victim or witness from testifying in court, or doing some act (see PC §136.1) or to bribe a witness in order to give false testimony (see PC §137)
    20. Manufacturing, compounding or selling ½ ounce or more of any salt or solution of a controlled substance as under the Health and Safety Code §11055(e)
    21. A violent felony (see PC §667.5(c)) that is also a felony violation of PC §186.22(b) pertinent to criminal gangs
    22. Escape from county juvenile hall, home, ranch, camp or forestry camp using force (see Welfare & Institutions Code §871(b)) and where great bodily harm is intentionally inflicted on an employee of the juvenile facility during the escape
    23. Torture (see PC §§ 206 & 206.1)
    24. Aggravated mayhem (see PC § 205)
    25. Carjacking while armed using a deadly or dangerous weapon (see PC §215)
    26. Kidnapping for the purpose of sexual assault (see PC §209(b))
    27. Kidnapping during the commission of carjacking (see PC§209.5)
    28. Discharge of a weapon from a motor vehicle (see PC §12034)
    29. Exploding, igniting, or attempting to explode/ignite a destructive device/explosive with the intent to commit murder (see PC §12308)
    30. Voluntary manslaughter (see PC §192(a)).

Effect of a 707(b) Juvenile Conviction: If you were convicted of one of the 30 offenses outlined above, your juvenile delinquency record will not be sealed. Sealing a record means that the record will ultimately cease to exist, for most practical considerations, so you can “move on”.

Comparing Adult and Juvenile Courts

Apart from its constitutional guarantees, the juvenile court is a far better option for most minors than an adult court, simply because it offers options that work towards enhanced rehabilitation, education and training of minors. An adult court can sentence a minor to a life in prison, but a juvenile court sentence typically only extends until the age of 25.

Minors who are under 14 and who were committed on nonviolent felony convictions have the option of a deferred entry of judgment program, which can provide for a complete dismissal of charges against the minor after a maximum period of three years of probation. Informal probation is available for minors younger than 14 and charged with less serious crimes, which means that they won’t have to admit to any charges and can look forward to their cases being dismissed.

Rights of Minors in Juvenile Courts – Based on the two famous cases that forever changed juveniles’ rights in court, namely Kent v US 383 US 541 (1966) and In re Gault 387 US 1 (1967), adult courts and juvenile courts now afford the defendant the same constitutional protections, including:

  • The right to counsel under the Sixth Amendment
  • The right to confront and cross-examine witnesses under the Sixth Amendment
  • The right against self-incrimination under the 5th Amendment
  • The right to remain silent under the 5th Amendment (receive “Miranda warnings”)
  • The right to receive notice of charges under the Due Process Clause
  • The right to exclude unconstitutionally obtained evidence under 4th, 5th Amendments

Waivers must be knowingly and voluntarily made, as required by the Due Process Clause

Proof of every element of every crime charged beyond a reasonable doubt. The US Supreme Court in In re Winship 397 US 358 (1970) expressed outmost concern for this highest standard of proof to be applied as to all juvenile defendants. The court described it as the “bedrock” principle of US criminal law. Furthermore, a minor may not be shackled at a juvenile court hearing unless a need can be shown.

Rights a Minor Doesn’t Have in the Juvenile Court – There is no constitutionally-protected right to bail for minors in juvenile court. Then again, if at the outcome of a fitness hearing (see F. above), the court finds that the minor should be tried as an adult (based on the severity of the crime) then there will be a right to bail.

Also, there is no right to a jury trial for minors. But, the juvenile court can impanel an advisory jury. An advisory jury gives an opinion on a case, but compared to a regular jury, the advisory jury’s opinion is ‘non-binding’, which means that the opinion expressed has no legal effect, so it cannot be considered law.

Further, there is no deferred entry of judgment for drug offenses. Nor is there an option for drug treatment instead of incarceration for nonviolent possession of drugs as under Proposition 36, which brought some changes to California’s much-criticized Three Strikes law (see above).

Finally, there is no right to a preliminary hearing (see PC §859b) nor to a probably cause finding to be made within 48 hours, nor to a warrantless arrest.

Consequences of Juvenile Adjudications

There may be many consequences to having a juvenile adjudication specifically in such areas as obtaining a driver’s license, getting a job, receiving public benefits, obtaining housing or entering the military.

However, for criminal sentence enhancements, if a person with a juvenile delinquency adjudication is later on in life criminally convicted, then the court cannot use the juvenile delinquency adjudication as a basis for enhancing the adult criminal sentence. This is because juvenile adjudications are not considered to be “convictions”. On the other hand, as already mentioned, the Three Strikes Law in California does allow a serious felony or a violent felony committed by a minor aged 16 or above to count as a strike. An adult criminal court may also use the record of a minor’s juvenile history to decide whether to grant or deny probation or even to impose an aggravated term in sentencing the now-adult defendant.

Further, for immigration purposes, the juvenile conviction will not count against the person as a conviction but could conversely become a basis for conduct-related deportation or a bar to admission.

Also, lifelong sex offender registration could be required based on a juvenile adjudication but the same is not possible for narcotics offender registration (i.e. the record is “sealed”).

Finally, firearms restrictions up to age 30 apply to minors convicted of many offenses.

If you or your loved one have been charged with a juvenile crime in Southern California, please don’t hesitate to Call Us: 310-274-6529.

Seppi Esfandi is an Expert in Criminal Law who has over 16 years of practice defending a variety of criminal cases.

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Yuenger, N. (2010). California criminal law: Procedure and practice 2010 (2010 ed.). Oakland Calif.: CEB – Continuing Education of the Bar.

Find California Code. (n.d.). Retrieved March 20, 2015, from

CALIFORNIA WELFARE AND INSTITUTIONS CODE. (n.d.). Retrieved March 21, 2015, from

CALIFORNIA VEHICLE CODE. (n.d.). Retrieved March 21, 2015, from

Michon, K. (n.d.). Juvenile Delinquency: What Happens in a Juvenile Case?

Juvenile justice. (n.d.). Retrieved March 21, 2015, from

Kent v US 383 US 541(1966)

In re Gault 387 US 1 (1967)

In Re Winship 397 US 358 (1970)

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