Juvenile defense can be a tricky subject. There are numerous differences between a standard trial in adult court and juvenile proceedings. Additionally, minors are not afforded all the same rights an adult would have. That’s not to say that minors don’t have any rights, of course. For example, a minor or a parent or legal guardian can still invoke the right against self-incrimination and the right to an attorney. If your child is charged with committing a delinquent act, hiring a lawyer is invaluable so you are more prepared for the peculiarities and consequences involved in juvenile defense.
As the graphic above shows, juvenile proceedings are classified as civil matters. When a minor is arrested for violating the law (which is known as a “delinquent act” instead of a crime in juvenile courts), the minor is taken to a Juvenile Assessment Center (JAC). There he or she will be subject to the Detention Risk Assessment Instrument (DRAI) to determine how much of a threat the minor poses and whether it is necessary to keep the minor in a detention center. If the juvenile scores low enough, he or she may be released home, In this case, the parent or legal guardian will often receive a Juvenile Notice to Appear, assigning the parent or guardian the responsibility of making sure the juvenile shows up for the arraignment.
However, if the minor scores high enough on the DRAI, the minor will be scheduled for a detention hearing in court.
If a detention hearing is scheduled, the hearing will occur within 24 hours after the juvenile is taken into custody. The judge will receive the results of the DRAI and a recommendation from the JAC about how the judge should proceed. This is an opportune moment for your lawyer to start making a good case for the juvenile and argue that further detainment is not necessary.
Generally, there are three ways a judge can rule in a detention hearing.
- If the judge determines there is little likelihood that the minor poses a major risk, the minor may be allowed to go home under the custody of a parent or legal guardian until the trial.
- The judge may implement Home Detention. The juvenile will still be allowed to go home, but will remain under the supervision of a Juvenile Probation Officer.
- The judge may decide it is necessary to keep the juvenile detained. The juvenile will be assigned to a detention center for up to 21 days.
The purpose of juvenile proceedings is to rehabilitate minors early to follow a lawful lifestyle, as opposed to adult court where punishment is handed down more severely. As such, prosecutors may be willing to dismiss charges in return for completion of diversion or rehabilitative programs, especially for first-time or nonviolent offenders. A couple of the many kinds of diversion programs are the Walker Plan and the YES Plan (Youth-Empowered Success). In such programs, the minor must meet certain requirements (e.g. community service, counseling) in lieu of facing a trial.
Another option is the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI). JDAI’s purpose is to reduce the number of juveniles who are detained needlessly, instead allowing them to pursue a diversion program as an alternative to going to trial.
If the prosecutor decides to go ahead with trial, then the prosecutor and the juvenile’s defense will present their cases to the judge—in juvenile proceedings, the right to a jury trial does not apply. However, the juvenile is still entitled to legal counsel, to a speedy trial, and to the right to confront the evidence against him or her. The prosecutor still must prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the minor is guilty of committing a delinquent act.
If the judge finds a minor is guilty in juvenile proceedings, the minor may be placed on probation under the supervision of a Juvenile Probation Officer. Another option is residential commitment, where the juvenile is detained in a facility designed to rehabilitate him or her to abandon a delinquent lifestyle. Yet again, the judge may choose only to issue a judicial warning.
There are some limited instances in which a juvenile is allowed to be tried as an adult; in such a case, it is generally in the prosecutor’s discretion to decide whether to try the juvenile as an adult. A minor can be tried in an adult court if he or she:
- Is charged with a felony and is 16 or 17 years old; OR
- Is 14 or 15 years old and committed certain serious offenses, such as grand theft auto or possession of a weapon in school; OR
- Allegedly committed an offense with a firearm that falls under Florida’s “10-20-Life” rule.