When a minor commits an offense in California, they are subjected to a different criminal justice system than adult offenders. Minors go through the juvenile justice system, whose primary mandate is to rehabilitate and not punish offenders. However, there are several legal processes you must be familiar with to understand what will happen to your loved one after arrest and what to expect in the end. A juvenile disposition hearing is the sentencing portion of a minor’s trial, which determines the case’s outcome. If your child is arrested in the Orange County area, we at the Orange County Criminal Defense Attorney Law Firm are here to help you go through the juvenile justice system and understand the possible outcome of your case.

Overview of California Juvenile Justice System

It is not unusual to find a minor violating the law and even committing severe offenses as those associated with adults. Even in such cases, minors are arrested, and just like adults, their case is heard and determined by a court. However, California laws are very protective of children. Children deserve a second chance in life. That is why they are not tried in criminal courts like adults but in juvenile courts. Juvenile offenders in California do not stand trial before a jury, where they are given a chance to defend themselves against the charges they are facing. 

The juvenile justice system involves presenting evidence against the minor and a judge determining what will happen to the minor. When there’s sufficient evidence that the minor committed the alleged offense, a ruling is made mainly to rehabilitate the minor. But before we delve into that, let us understand what takes place when a minor is arrested.

In California, the legal age is set at 18. Below that, an individual is viewed and treated as a minor. When a juvenile commits an offense, and the police learn about it, law enforcement officers will arrest the minor, just the same way they arrest adult offenders. However, the police will first establish the minor’s actual age. To decide on the way forward. Here are the options the police have after the arrest:

  • To release the offender without taking further action — this is possible if the alleged offense is trivial.
  • To refer the minor’s case to a prosecutor — this will happen if the alleged offense is severe and the minor is 17 or 18. In this case, the district attorney will open charges against the minor in an adult court, where the minor will stand trial and face criminal sentencing if found guilty.
  • To release the offender and order them to come back to the station with their parents or guardian — the police, in this case, will open an investigation into the matter to determine the way forward.
  • To give the offender an order to appear before a probation officer on a set date — the officer determines the course the case will take, based on the case’s circumstances and the minor’s criminal history.

If the case is referred to a probation officer, the police will take the offender to a juvenile hall. The state’s probation department runs the juvenile hall. The department will select one officer to be in charge of the minor’s case. When the officer receives the case, he/she may choose to do the following, based on the seriousness of the offense and the minor’s criminal history:

  • To release the minor to his/her parents with an order to appear in a juvenile court on a predetermined date.
  • To release the minor and allow him/her to go back home with a probation program.
  • To detain the offender and allow a judge to review and determine the matter.

Cases handled by probation officers in the juvenile justice system involve both misdemeanors and felonies. If the officer feels that the case is severe and should be determined by a juvenile court judge, the minor and his/her parents will have to attend a juvenile disposition hearing and wait for the judge’s final ruling.

California Juvenile Disposition Hearings

A juvenile disposition hearing refers to a hearing in which a judge rules over a juvenile case. It is the same as a sentencing hearing in an adult criminal court. A disposition hearing is necessary in cases where a probation officer has sufficient evidence to prove that the minor committed the alleged offense. The officers then refer the case to a judge, who determines the juvenile court’s disciplinary measure on the juvenile offender. 

Remember that offenders in the juvenile justice system do not go through a trial. They are not given a chance to defend themselves against the charges they are facing. Therefore, the minor and his/her parent/guardian do not have any role during the disposition hearing. However, you can hire an experienced criminal defense attorney. Your attorney will ensure that the disciplinary measure imposed by the judge against your loved one is not harsh.

Before the disposition hearing, the minor is subjected to an adjudication hearing. It is just like a trial in the adult criminal justice system. During the adjudication hearing, the evidence against the minor is presented in court. The views of the victims, the minor’s family, and the public, in general, will be heard by the court. If the minor loses in the adjudication hearing, the judge will proceed to the disposition hearing or the process’s sentencing phase. The sentence the judge gives the minor could be lenient or harsh, based on the following:

  • The minor’s age
  • The circumstances of the case
  • The gravity of the offense committed
  • The juvenile’s history of delinquency

A juvenile court judge cannot penalize an offender if he/she fails to plead guilty or confess. But the judge’s decision can be influenced by the minor’s conduct during the hearing. For instance, if the minor provides false information, the judge could note it since it is considered a violation of perjury laws. 

The role of an experienced criminal defense attorney during the disposition hearing is significant. Your attorney will work hard to have your loved one removed from the probation department’s hands to home or back to school where the minor belongs. 

When Are Disposition Hearings Held?

There is no clear guideline on when a disposition hearing can be held. You have to be fully involved in the processes not to miss any phase your loved one will go through before their case is determined. Sometimes adjudication and disposition hearings are held on separate days. Other times they are held on the same day and even a few minutes apart. If the juvenile court judge has enough information to make a sentencing decision after hearing the evidence presented against the minor, he/she can proceed to hold a disposition hearing right after the adjudication hearing.  

However, it is in the minor’s best interest to wait a little longer for the probation officer to submit his/her social study. The study contains the probation officer’s recommended sentence based on the minor’s conduct and the severity of the offense. The judge may also decide to wait for the minor’s parent/guardian to submit any evidence that could positively portray the minor. If that is the case, then the judge could postpone the disposition hearing to a later date.

Another reason for postponing a disposition hearing is if the minor is suspected of having mental issues. The judge will order a psychological evaluation on the minor and then hold a disposition hearing after going through the psychologist’s report. 

Note the following:

  • A disposition hearing cannot be postponed indefinitely. Sooner than later, the judge will have to announce a sentence against the minor.
  • The victim has the right to attend a disposition hearing. He/she could also make a written or spoken statement during the hearing that could impact the case.
  • The minor can testify during the disposition hearing

Types of Sentences Given

Juveniles found guilty of committing criminal offenses and whose cases are filed in juvenile courts by probation officers are subjected to several disposition or sentencing options. The gravity of the sentence is determined by the gravity or severity of the crime, the minor’s prior criminal record, the victim’s status, and whether the victim died or incurred severe physical injuries. Here are possible dispositions your minor can get during the hearing:

Dismissal, under Section 782 of California Welfare & Institutions Act

A juvenile court judge may decide to dismiss the petition against your loved one altogether or set aside the court’s findings and dismiss the petition. This could happen if the court finds that dismissing the petition would be for the best interests of justice and the welfare of the person who is the petition’s subject. The judge could also dismiss the petition if he/she determines that the juvenile doesn’t require rehabilitation or treatment.

Juvenile courts have total jurisdiction in ordering a petition dismissal or setting aside court findings regarding a particular case. The court’s decision is not influenced by the person, who is the subject of the petition, or whether or not the minor is a ward of the court.

Informal Probation

Informal probation for juvenile offenders is provided under Sections 554/725 of the California Welfare & Institutions Act. It involves a time of supervision by the probation officer for not more than six months. During this period, the minor could be enrolled in an alcohol or drug treatment program. The minor’s parents/guardians will be required to participate in the program too. If your loved one is placed on informal probation, he/she will be:

  • On probation for a maximum of six months
  • Be required to attend an education program
  • Be subjected to a curfew between 2200hours to 0600hours, except if accompanied by his/her parents or guardian.
  • The parents or guardian must participate in the minor’s education and counseling program.

Additionally, the juvenile might also be subjected to alcohol or drug testing; he/she could be required to pay restitution to their victim. Parents/guardians of the offender may be expected to pay restitution if the minor isn’t working and cannot make payments as ordered. 

Informal probation is mainly given to non-violent and first-time juvenile offenders. At the end of the probation period, the court will dismiss the minor’s petition, but on the condition that the minor has not committed another offense and has satisfied all his/her probation terms. 

Diversion Disposition

A diversion disposition entails diverting a juvenile’s charges for a predetermined period. However, the disposition is only available for juvenile offenders who plead guilty to the charges against them. They also must agree to the conditions of diversion given by the juvenile court judge.

Before a case is filed against your loved one, all the parties involved could agree to have a diversion disposition, as provided under Section 654 of the California Welfare & Institutions Act. The probation officer put in charge of your child’s case will design a plan for the minor, including the parent/guardian’s involvement in the education or treatment of the minor for a period not exceeding six months. Parents or legal guardians could also be required to attend a separate program within their community, based on the severity of the juvenile’s behavior.

An offender sentenced under this law will be sheltered in a facility within his/her community for a maximum of ninety days. If the minor completes the diversion program with no issues, the juvenile court will dismiss or drop the petition against him/her. Again, diversion is given to low-level and first-time offenders. 

The program will mainly emphasize treatment, counseling, education, and behavior modification. The juvenile must agree to attend a school or vocational training and participate in individual or group activities like therapy and counseling. He/she might also be required to participate in community service work, pay court fines and make restitution to the victim.

There will be consequences if the juvenile doesn’t complete his/her responsibilities under this disposition. Through the probation officer in charge of the case, the probation department might decide to file an official petition against the minor in a juvenile court within the six months or ninety days after the end of the six-month diversion period. 

Deferred Entry of Judgment

Deferred entry of judgment is a type of disposition in the juvenile justice system. The disposition is given to juvenile offenders who are facing drug-related charges. Offenders, in this case, request the juvenile court to have their cases suspended for between 12 and 36 months, at least until they complete a court-approved drug or rehabilitation program. However, the juvenile has to admit or plead guilty to the charges in the case for the court to agree to defer judgment on his/her petition. Sometimes the court can agree to dismiss the juvenile’s petition if he/she completes the court-mandated programs. 

DEJ disposition is also given to low-level and first-time offenders but not for those accused of violent felonies, gang-related offenses, crimes involving the use of guns, sexual assault offenses, and other offenses listed under Section 707b of the California Welfare & Institutions Act. 

If your child is fourteen years old, has a history of truancy, or is a first-time juvenile offender currently facing drug-related offenses such as sale or possession of drugs, he/she could qualify for DEJ. However, the minor must not have been recently declared a court’s ward after committing a felony. He/she must also not have his/her probation canceled in the past. If the juvenile abides by all conditions provided by the court, the court will have his/her charges dismissed between 12 and 36 months of the program.

While under the DEJ program, the minor will be expected to comply with impromptu searches of their person or property by the police even without warranty and to random alcohol/drug tests during the period. They will also be subjected to a curfew and compulsory attendance of school. The court will also require the minor to pay restitution to the victim.

Formal Probation

Formal probation for juvenile offenders is available when the minor is declared a court’s ward.  The court can place the minor on probation at the minor’s home, home of the minor’s relative, camp, or group home. A minor is placed on a camp or group home if the court establishes that they require more structure.  

When a minor is placed on formal probation, the court will require him/her to abide by specific terms throughout the probation period. Some of the standard terms of formal juvenile probation in California include:

  • The child must abide by the curfew restriction — the juvenile is only allowed to break the curfew regulations if in the company of his/her parents/guardian
  • The minor must attend school while on probation
  • He/she must undertake community service
  • The court may require the minor to avoid associating with particular persons
  • The minor must undergo alcohol/drug counseling/rehabilitation
  • He/she must pay restitution to the victim

If the court places your loved one on probation and sends him/her to a camp, several types of camps are available in California for that purpose. For instance, wilderness camps, in which fire-fighting and forestry skills are trained, or military-style camps. But counseling and treatment will be the main emphasis in these camps. 

Commitment to State Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ)

DJJ is a type of juvenile disposition for minors who commit serious felony offenses or any of those listed under Section 707b of the California Welfare & Institutions Code. A court could also commit a minor to DJJ if they have committed a sex offense in which registration as a sex offender is required. 

DJJ programs are meant to provide education and trauma-informed treatment to California juveniles who have a severe criminal history and require intense treatment. The minor can be placed in the program until they attain the age of 25. In most cases, a minor will be placed in a county facility near their home or community to be close to their families and the local social services they might need during rehabilitation.

While in DJJ, your loved one will receive academic and vocational education, treatment, and medical care. Treatment is based on the minor’s underlying problem. It could address violence, sex-offender behavior, drug and substance use, or mental health. The child will be assigned a living unit according to his/her gender, age, and specialized treatment needed. 

However, the minor must meet the following criteria to be sent to a DJJ correctional facility:

  • The court must have made them a ward of the court
  • The offense they recently committed must be listed under Section 707b of the California Welfare & Institutions Act, or
  • Their most recent offense must be specified under Section 290.008c of California Penal Code

Before sending the minor to DJJ, the court must set the maximum terms of his/her confinement. The time for confinement must not exceed the time an adult can receive as a prison sentence for the same offense. The judge has total discretion to determine the time for confinement, which could also be below the adult maximum prison time. 

Generally, commitments to DJJ facilities are usually long and severe. All minors in these facilities are required to attend school full-time. When your child completes high school, there are college and vocational training programs they can join. Juveniles are also offered paying jobs in the DJJ facilities where they’ve been confined. They could be paid for landscaping, janitorial work, or food preparation. Only visitors who do not pose any threat to the minor can be allowed into these facilities. 

Find an Orange County Criminal Defense Attorney Law Firm Near Me

If your loved one has been arrested on suspicion of committing a criminal offense, understanding the juvenile justice system could help you know what to expect throughout the legal process. You need the help of an experienced criminal defense attorney for guidance, advice, and defense during juvenile disposition hearings. If you are seeking legal help in Orange County, the Orange County Criminal Defense Attorney Law Firm is here for you. We have a reliable team of criminal defense attorneys that will be willing to take you through the process and ensure that the rights of your loved one are not violated. Call us at 714-740-7848