The California juvenile court process differs from the criminal process in adult courts. These two processes even entail the use of different jargon. One of the terminologies you will hear during the juvenile court process is ‘sustained juvenile petition.’ In essence, when the juvenile court judge sustains the petition filed against a juvenile offender, it means the same as when the judge in adult criminal court delivers a guilty verdict. Should the juvenile court judge sustain the petition against your child, they (your child) may be subject to severe repercussions.

The juvenile delinquency court process is intricate, especially if it is the child’s first time undergoing it. If your young one has been accused of an offense, you will need help from an experienced juvenile delinquency attorney conversant with the California juvenile justice system to avoid a sustained petition. At Los Angeles Criminal Attorney, we aggressively defend our juvenile clients to ensure we obtain the most favorable outcome for their cases. Do not hesitate to contact us for a consultation and evaluation of your child’s case.

Sustained Juvenile Petitions Overview

Like adults, children can also be accused of committing crimes in California. A child can be accused of either a felony or misdemeanor offense. Since they are below the legal age of consent, children are not treated like adults when caught committing a crime. Instead of undergoing the adult criminal court process, they will be subjected to the juvenile justice system. The crimes minors can be accused of are divided into two— status offenses and delinquent offenses.

  • Status offenses— a status offense is an action deemed unlawful when a child commits it and legal when committed by a grown-up. Put otherwise; a status offense is an act that is lawful for adults but not for minors. Examples of status offenses are running away from home, truancy, curfew rules violation, underage alcohol use, and general ungovernability. Status offenses do not carry harsh penalties.
  • Delinquent offenses— a delinquent offense is that which is illegal for both minors and adults. Examples include vandalism, trespass, murder, criminal threats, et cetera. Delinquent offenses carry severe consequences.

When a child has supposedly committed a crime, the prosecution brings a petition against them. This is comparable to filing a complaint in adult criminal court. There is no jury in juvenile delinquency court. However, a juvenile court judge considers the evidence presented against the child and gives their decision. If they decide that the prosecutor has proven beyond any reasonable doubt the child committed the supposed violation, they proceed to sustain the petition filed against the child.

For example, say the authorities arrest a child for violating Penal Code 594, vandalism. The juvenile then has their adjudication hearing at the nearest juvenile hall. If the prosecution presents sufficient evidence to prove the child violated Penal Code 594, vandalism, the juvenile court judge will find the accusation to be true and sustain the petition brought against the child.

And if the prosecutor fails to meet the required burden of proof, the judge will dismiss the petition. Then, the child will not have a sustained juvenile petition arising from the vandalism case.

If the petition filed against a juvenile is sustained, the child will face various consequences based on the severity of the offense committed. Note that California law comes into play when punishing juvenile offenders regardless of the seriousness of the crime. However, the juvenile justice system centers on child rehabilitation. This is unlike the adult criminal justice system, which centers on retribution. The consequences for a juvenile offender are generally lenient.

The Process Leading Up to a Sustained Petition

The juvenile court judge decides whether or not to sustain the petition filed against the child after the child undergoes the juvenile court process. The juvenile delinquency court process entails several steps, starting with a child’s arrest for suspicion of committing a crime. Things might end at the arrest stage since the police may decide to let the minor go after issuing a warning. The law enforcement officer can also issue the child a citation to show up in court later but permit the child to go home for the time being.

Or, if the case is severe, the police can take the young one to the probation department, where they will be detained at juvenile hall. If your child is taken to juvenile hall, they may not stay there for a long time. Probation officers have options just like police officers. One of the probation officers will interrogate your minor and take the following steps based on how the interrogation will turn out:

  • Send the child home after issuing them a citation to return to court later
  • Send the child home after giving them a probation program that does not necessitate returning to court (except if they disobey the order)
  • Keep the minor in the juvenile hall until the judge looks at their case

The Detention Hearing

If the child stays in the hall, the probation officer will take their case to the prosecutor, who then decides whether or not to bring a petition against the child. If the prosecutor decides to file a petition, a detention hearing follows. This is the first hearing the child will be subject to, and it determines whether they should continue being locked up pending the resolution of the case filed against them or be released.

The Transfer Hearing

Once the detention hearing is over, and the judge has decided that the child should continue being detained, a transfer/fitness hearing follows. A transfer hearing is a process in which the judge determines whether the child is fit to undergo the juvenile court system. When making this determination, the juvenile court judge will consider different factors, including how severe the supposed crime is. The judge will also consider whether the child will likely benefit from the juvenile court's rehab services. Should the judge decide that the child will not benefit from the services, they (the child) will be transferred to adult criminal court.

The prosecution can initiate a fitness hearing when:

  • The child was fourteen or fifteen when they supposedly committed a crime specified under WIC 707(b), and they were not caught until they were 18
  • The child is sixteen years or older and is supposed to have committed a felony or an offense listed under WIC 707(b)

The prosecution must give the child five court days’ notice of the transfer hearing.

The Adjudication Hearing

After the transfer hearing, the adjudication hearing comes next. An adjudication hearing is sometimes called a jurisdiction hearing. This hearing resembles a court trial in adult criminal court. During this hearing, the juvenile court judge determines whether the child committed the crime they have been accused of and should face discipline. Most of the rules in adult criminal courts also apply in juvenile delinquency courts, except juvenile delinquency courts only have judges— no juries, and the process is more relaxed.

Additionally, while a jury finds an accused on trial ‘not guilty’ or ‘guilty,‘  in adult criminal court, that is not the case with juvenile cases. In juvenile delinquency court, the child is subject to an adjudication hearing, during which the judge decides whether the juvenile broke the law. Juvenile court has no guilty or not guilty verdicts.

The juvenile court judge allows the prosecution and the child’s side to make legal arguments and present evidence. The prosecution must demonstrate that the child committed the offense beyond any reasonable doubt. On the other hand, the child can argue a defense, subpoena witnesses, and testify in their favor. Also, note that the child is entitled to effective assistance from a lawyer.

Should the judge decide that the child broke the law, they find the allegations true and sustain the petition the prosecutor filed. Conversely, the judge might find that the prosecution’s evidence is insufficient and cannot prove the child violated the law. If that is the case, the court judge finds the allegation untrue and does not sustain the petition.

What Next After the Judge Sustains the Petition?

The case will move on to a disposition hearing if the judge sustains the petition against the child offender. A disposition hearing is the equivalent of a sentencing hearing in adult criminal court. Here, the judge has determined that the minor did commit a violation, and they decide what discipline to impose.

The juvenile justice system avails several disposition options. The judge imposes a sentence tailored to a specific offending juvenile to assist them in becoming rehabilitated. They consider several factors while determining what disciplinary action the minor will face. But particularly, they consider the juvenile’s age, their delinquent history, and the gravity and circumstances surrounding the crime.

The judge cannot punish the minor for refusing to enter a guilty plea or failing to admit to the violation. However, they can consider whether the juvenile committed perjury by giving false testimony at their adjudication hearing.

If the juvenile court judge has all the info, they need to make a disposition decision at the adjudication hearing, the juvenile disposition hearing can occur immediately after the adjudication ends. However, if they still have to wait for the social study from the probation officer (which has the officer’s recommended sentencing option), they will postpone the disposition hearing. They will also postpone the disposition hearing if the child or their parent wishes to submit relevant material that may assist in portraying the child in a good way,

If the child possibly suffers from mental health problems, the judge may order that they undergo a psychological assessment. But be sure that the judge cannot indefinitely proceed to the next step of the juvenile court process. For example, if the child is in detention, the disposition hearing must occur within ten court days after the adjudication hearing. The victim is entitled to appear at the sentencing hearing. They can also make a written victim impact statement and speak at the proceeding. The child is entitled to testify at the sentencing hearing.

Among the sentencing options the judge can impose are:

Commitment to the Division of Juvenile Justice

Apart from adult prison, the most severe punishment a juvenile can be subject to is a commitment to the Division of Juvenile Justice, formerly known as CYA (California Youth Authority).

Only juveniles whose most recent adjudication is for an offense listed under WIC 707(b) or one of the several crimes necessitating registration as a sex offender can be committed to the Division of Juvenile Justice.

Formal Probation at Camp or Home

If the juvenile court judge directs that the minor be a ward of the court, they could sentence the child to a probation term. At times ward of the court can serve their probation sentence at home, and sometimes the judge orders that they be placed in a suitable group home or relative's home, including level fourteen group homes meant for emotionally disturbed children.

Conditions and terms of probation can include any activity reasonably required for the minor's rehab, including:

  • Compulsory school attendance.
  • Drug abuse counseling.
  • Curfew restrictions.
  • Not associating with particular people.
  • Graffiti removal.
  • Restitution.
  • Community service.

Juveniles who need a higher level of discipline can be taken to probation camp for at least three months to at most a year.

California has approximately seventy probation camps, most of which have dormitory-based environments and have a structured daily schedule that involves treatment and education programs.

Other probation camps available in California are fire/wilderness camps that emphasize firefighting and forestry training, family-style Missouri-model camps that focus on small-scale, intensive treatment, and military-style boot camps.

DEJ (Deferred Entry of Judgment)

DEJ under WIC 790 is another disposition option. DEJ requires that the juvenile admits guilt to the allegations in the petition, but the judge will dismiss their charges if they complete the DEJ program. This disposition option is available for minors who have committed a felony for the first time, and the felony is not classified under WIC 707(b) crimes. The program lasts between twelve and thirty-six months.

Informal Probation

If the case is not more severe, the juvenile may qualify for diversion and informal probation under WIC 725 or WIC 654. Informal probation may be an option if it is the child’s first-time violation and the crime is nonviolent, like PC 602 trespass or PC 594 vandalism.

Under WIC 654, the court diverts the child’s case to informal probation before the prosecution files a petition. In juvenile delinquency court, there are often cases involving petty theft crimes like shoplifting under PC 484. Considering how low-level a crime like shoplifting is, your child’s lawyer would try to obtain informal probation under WIC 725 or diversion under WIC 654. This means that the child will have their charges dropped upon completing the probation sentence, or the prosecution will not file a petition against the child, to begin with.

The probation period is not more than six months, and the probation officer must develop a plan for the juvenile that balances the minor’s interests and the community. Generally, the informal supervision program includes counseling and education. Should the minor fail to perform, the probation officer may still file a petition in the juvenile court.

Under WIC 725, the judge decides to sentence the child to informal probation. WIC 725 informal probation and WIC 654 informal probation are different in that for WIC 754, the prosecutor files a petition. However, the judge puts the petition on hold to give the child a second chance.

For this probation program, the child does not admit guilt. Also, provided they comply with the probation program's terms and conditions, the judge will dismiss the petition. The terms and conditions of probation generally include counseling for the child and their parents, curfew, and school attendance. Other potential conditions are restitution and drug testing. Informal probation under WIC 725 lasts six months.

Lasting Consequences Following a Sustained Petition

Unfortunately, a sustained juvenile petition can follow the child for the rest of their life. Sustained juvenile petitions are considered strikes under the state's Three Strikes Law. The California Rules of Court also permit adult criminal courts to consider sustained juvenile petitions when making sentencing and probation decisions.

Sustained petitions can result in the requirement to register as a sex offender and even civil confinement as an SVP (sexually violent predator). But in a case of less severe juvenile conviction, the minor may be capable of sealing their juvenile record if they fulfill their sentence and remain crime-free for a given period.

Sealing a Juvenile Record Following a Sustained Juvenile Petition

The juvenile record sealing process following a sustained juvenile petition is regulated under WIC 781. On average, this process takes eight to ten months. A person files the petition in the county where the juvenile proceedings occurred.  A person qualifies to seal their juvenile record if the following conditions are satisfied:

  • They have not been found guilty of a misdemeanor or felony that involves moral turpitude
  • They are eighteen years or older, or it has been five years since the juvenile court's discretion terminated
  • The juvenile court did not convict them of a severe crime (like torture, robbery, or murder) after they turned fourteen
  • The judge believes they are rehabilitated
  • They do not have any pending civil litigation against them emerging from their juvenile incidents.

Contrary to prevalent misperceptions, sustained juvenile petitions are not automatically sealed after a person turns eighteen unless they obtain a judicial order to seal and destroy the record under WIC 781.

Sealing a sustained juvenile petition and arrest record prevents prospective lenders, employers, state licensing bodies, school officials, and landlords from discriminating against the accused due to mistakes they made when they were young.

How a Juvenile Defense Lawyer Can Help

A juvenile delinquency defense lawyer can help in several ways if your child has been accused of an offense. As a parent, you generally imagine the most favorable outcome for your young one when they are in trouble with the law. If you hire a lawyer for your child as soon as they are arrested, they may be able to prevent your child from acquiring a sustained juvenile petition. 

Earlier, we mentioned that the prosecutor would present and argue the case against your child before the court for the court to decide whether they violated the law. On the other hand, a lawyer plays a critical role in the case as they will assist the minor in countering the charges against them. The lawyer's job is to assist the minor in navigating the juvenile process easily, understanding the terms of the juvenile justice system, and granting the child the most solid legal defense that would result in an acquittal.

But if the prosecution's evidence is overwhelming and the judge sustains the petition against the child, the law lawyer can still assist the minor in understanding and following the terms of the imposed sentence.

The objective is to ensure that even if the child has a sustained juvenile petition, they may be able to seal their juvenile record in the future so they can have a clean record. The lawyer will assist in negotiating fair terms if the judge sustains the petition against the minor.

Contact a Juvenile Delinquency Lawyer Near Me

Navigating the juvenile justice system can be complex for minors and their parents. And just like in adult cases, juveniles face punishment when accused of violating a law. A sustained juvenile petition can subject your child to severe consequences they are not ready to face for their age. For example, your child may be taken away from you for a given period to live in foster care, a group home, or a probation camp. The best you can do for your child in helping them to avoid a sustained petition is to hire an experienced juvenile delinquency lawyer.

At Los Angeles Criminal Attorney, our juvenile delinquency attorneys have decades of experience defending minors in Juvenile courts in Los Angeles. We will aggressively defend your minor and assist both of you in understanding the court process. We will evaluate the juvenile's case thoroughly before developing a defense strategy that may prevent a sustained petition. Call us at 424-333-0943 for a consultation.