Several scientific studies, court decisions, and experiences have shown that minors should not be tried like grown-ups for the same criminal conduct. The same has also indicated that children are less capable of meaningfully navigating justice system processes, including working with their lawyers.
Additionally, the justice system involvement could have adverse and long-lasting health and psychological impacts on minors. Eventually, their supposed crimes are better addressed via alternative ways other than a prosecution, including education, child welfare, human services, or health care.
Senate Bill 439 excludes particular children from prosecution in juvenile court. It protects young offenders from the adverse effects of the formal justice system, safeguards their health and well-being through alternative child-serving systems, and lower the number of resources used in the juvenile justice system.
If your minor is facing criminal charges, they may have protection under Senate Bill 439. You will need to hire an attorney to advise you on your child’s legal options. If the child faces charges in Van Nuys, California, contact Leah Legal, and we will do our best to protect their rights.
How California Juvenile Cases Are Handled
In California, juvenile cases go through two separate court systems— juvenile dependency and juvenile delinquency court systems. The juvenile delinquency court system focuses on children charged with offenses, while the juvenile dependency court system deals with children that have been abandoned, neglected, or abused.
Generally, children have to be categorized under either of the systems, but not both simultaneously. However, in given cases, a child can fall under both jurisdictions. If this is the case, the minor is considered to have a dual status. Prosecutors strive to keep juveniles out of the delinquency court system to enhance rehabilitation instead of punishment.
Generally, the juvenile delinquency court system handles crimes perpetrated by children aged between twelve and seventeen years. But in given cases, it handles offenses committed by minors under the age of twelve. The juvenile court system isn’t under the criminal court system—it’s under the civil law system.
As far as the juvenile court system is concerned, judges address cases, whereas prosecutors and defense lawyers participate. There are no juries. Typically, a juvenile case is confidential.
In 2018 the juvenile justice system underwent some changes after the signing into law of Senate Bill 439, which required the juvenile delinquency system to assume jurisdiction only over minors below twelve years under specific circumstances.
What Senate Bill 439 Says In Detail
On 30th September 2018, California Governor, Jerry Brown, passed into law Senate Bill (SB) 439, but the law wasn’t operative until January 2019. This bill prevents the juvenile court from having jurisdiction over juvenile offenders below twelve years old. However, it doesn’t apply to minors who commit rape, murder, oral copulation, sexual penetration, or sodomy.
The juvenile delinquency court system would still take over in these kinds of cases, even if the offender is below twelve years, as long as the commission of the offenses was accomplished through violence, menace, threats of bodily harm, or force.
Laws Before SB 439
SB 439 substantially changed the laws on juvenile court jurisdiction. Per the State’s previous law, the juvenile court had the official power to make legal decisions and judgments over all minors below 18 years old who violated any California or federal statute. There wasn’t the least age of a minor where the court couldn’t try a case.
Current Laws Under SB 439
SB 439 provides that the juvenile court system has power over a child when they are between 12 and 17 years old and violate any statute of the U.S, California, or a municipal order. Per the bill, the state’s juvenile court still has the power to make legal decisions and judgments over a minor below 12 years old when the child commits murder, oral copulation, sodomy, sexual penetration, and rape. For the last four offenses, the court has authority over these cases only when a minor commits the offenses through violence, force, menace, threats of physical injury, and duress.
In all the other cases that involve children below twelve years, SB 439 provides that all counties devise alternatives to the juvenile justice system that are less strict. This bill doesn’t say anything about who is liable for coming up with these alternatives. However, it does mention that the responsible people can provide health-, community-, and school-based services as alternatives.
The Logic Behind SB 439
The advocates of the current law uphold it for the following reasons. They are:
- Research reveals that if children go through the justice system so early in their lives, they will more likely become chronic offenders.
- Interacting with the justice system early in life causes harm to minor’s educational or developmental outcomes
- The current laws highly correspond to brain development science, which indicates that minors’ brains require a more extended period to develop into adulthood.
Apart from California, twenty other states have the least age when a minor can enter the juvenile justice system. The age ranges from six to 12 years. Massachusetts was the first to set the least age at twelve years earlier in 2018 before California followed suit. SB 439 amends Welfare & Institutions Code (WIC) 602 and 601.
Legal Rights for Juvenile Offenders After SB 439
A child facing juvenile court proceedings won’t have the same legal rights as offenders going through adult court criminal proceedings, but most are similar. Prior to the I960s, young offenders had limited constitutional rights. Because juvenile court proceedings are formal, the state and juvenile courts have strengthened minors’ rights. The following are legal rights in juvenile delinquency proceedings. They are still the same as those of the previous law:
- The police need probable cause to search a child— law enforcement officers can only search and place your child under arrest if they have probable cause to do so. That is if they have reason to suspect the minor violated a law. However, any public official in a quasi-parental relationship with the child, for instance, a school staff, only needs suspicion of misbehavior to search and, if need be, detain them.
- Your child is entitled to a phone call— generally, a minor offender has the right to place one phone call if they’re detained, and there’s no chance that they’ll be released soon. They can opt to contact their guardian or parent, who will then talk to an attorney. Or, they could call a lawyer directly. By demanding to call their parent/guardian or lawyer, the child invokes his/her Miranda rights. In case the police ignore the minor’s request to speak with a parent/guardian or attorney, they can’t use anything he/she says to them against him/her in court.
- Your child has a right to legal counsel— in the re Gault case, the United States Supreme Court held that minor offenders have the constitutional right to have a lawyer by their side during their juvenile proceedings. In case they can’t afford one, a public defender has to be appointed to represent them.
- No right to bail— juvenile offenders aren’t entitled to make bail. However, many of them are set free before arraignment.
- The right to receive notice of the charges— again, the Supreme Court directed that a juvenile offender has to be notified of their charges.
- The right to invoke the 5th amendment privilege against self-incrimination
- The right to interrogate and cross-examine witnesses— whereas the adjudication hearing is not formal, your child has the legal right to confront and cross-examine witnesses. This means he/she could question the parties testifying against him/her and challenge their testimony through an experienced lawyer.
- California does not allow trial by the jury in juvenile cases.
- Your child is entitled to have his/her charges proven beyond a reasonable doubt if he/she is facing adjudication or incarceration because of juvenile court proceedings. The prosecution has to prove the charges against your child beyond a reasonable doubt. In case the minor isn’t facing incarceration or adjudication, the prosecution only has to establish the charges through a preponderance of the evidence.
Sentencing Options for Juvenile Cases Remain the Same Even With SB 349 in Place
When your child commits an offense, the probation department or prosecution can file a petition. The petition requests the juvenile court to become involved in the case. It states what the state thinks your child did. It’s the judge’s job to sustain or deny the petition. Should the judge grant the petition, your child will be subjected to any of the available sentencing or disposition options we’ll discuss below. The disposition option the child will face depends on factors like the severity of the criminal conduct, prior criminal history, whether the involved victim suffered severe bodily harm, and the supposed victim’s status.
Even though SB 439 provides relief on the age of juvenile offenders who can undergo the juvenile justice system, sentencing options remain the same for all the offenders that must go through this system.
Deferred Entry of Judgment (DEJ)
DEJ is a kind of juvenile probation. Under this sentencing option, your child will be required to agree to the allegations in the petition. The judgment and sentencing are then deferred or not entered (postponed) while he/she serves a probation sentence. Once the child completes the probation sentence, the court dismisses his/her case. The probation lasts for one to three years, and the judge may order the following terms and conditions based on the individual case:
- Random alcohol and drug testing
- Warrantless searches of the child and areas under their control (compulsory)
- Curfew restrictions
- The requirement to attend school (mandatory)
This disposition option is mostly for less serious offenses that don’t include gang-related crimes, sexual assault, violent felonies, crimes involving firearms, and crimes under WIC 707(b).
The court can’t dismiss your child’s charges earlier than 12 months and later than 36 months from the date of referral to the DEJ program.
Your Child May Face Diversion
Prior to the prosecution or probation department filing a petition, the parties involved may settle on the diversion sentencing option per WIC 654. The probation officer may devise a plan, including the minor’s participation in a treatment or education program for up to six months. Your child may spend three months in a community facility as part of the diversion program. Should they complete the program, his/her case is dismissed, and the prosecution or probation department won’t file a petition.
The court can also sentence your child to a probation term, which they can serve while at camp, home, group home, or relative’s home. Probation terms and conditions may include anything that can reasonably be useful in rehabilitating the child, including:
- Curfew restrictions.
- School attendance (mandatory).
- Community service.
- Alcohol or drug counseling.
- Not mingling with particular people.
- Graffiti removal.
Generally, if your child is committed to a juvenile camp, he/she will be required to enroll in a short-term program. The program offers vocational training, counseling, recreational activities, work experience, and educational services.
Commitment to the Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ)
Your child will face this disposition option if he/she has committed:
- An offense under WIC 707(b)
- A serious felony
- A crime that requires him/her to register as a sex offender
Informal Probation Under WIC 654 and 725
Under this sentencing option, a petition against your child is filed, but they may be subject to informal probation. This probation may involve a supervision period that won’t go beyond six months, whereby you and your child enroll in a drug or alcohol treatment/counseling program. Other terms may include:
- The child has to follow curfew rules except when you’re accompanying him/her.
- Mandatory school attendance for the child.
- The minor has to pay restitution to the supposed victim.
Generally, this disposition is for nonviolent offenses like vandalism and trespass. Once the probation term ends, and the child has complied with all probationary terms, the case against him/her will be dismissed.
Sealing Criminal Juvenile Records
California allows juvenile record sealing to protect minors from prejudice arising from those records. For your child to have his/her record sealed, he/she should file a petition in court. The judge has the power to grant the petition and seal the record or deny it, and the record remains unsealed. Consequently, engaging a skilled lawyer will increase the likelihood of a successful outcome.
Once a juvenile record is sealed, the public can’t access it. This means your child can legally deny having been arrested or convicted if asked. However, the records could be reopened in these situations:
- If the child is an involved party in a civil suit
- The DMV (Department of Motor Vehicle) may allow vehicle insurance providers to scrutinize the child’s driving records to analyze his/her insurance eligibility and risk.
- The DA could access these records when looking for and disclosing evidence in a case.
Your child can file the petition to seal his/her juvenile record after:
- He/she has reached 18 years and successfully served his/her probation sentence, or
- Five or more years have passed since the jurisdiction of the juvenile court was terminated.
The child isn’t eligible for sealing their record if they committed an offense classified under Welfare & Institutions Code 707(b) after turning fourteen.
SB 439 Did Not Change the Fact that a Minor Can Be Tried As a Grown Up
Despite SB 439 providing relief for minors under 12 years, it doesn’t change the law on prosecuting children as adults. Per the law, any juvenile offender aged 16 years and above can be prosecuted in adult court. Crimes that can make your child be tried in adult court are, among others, murder, aggravated mayhem, robbery, carjacking, kidnapping, and other WIC 707(b).
As far as prosecuting a minor as a grown-up is concerned, the judge schedules a fitness hearing to determine whether the minor is fit to go through the juvenile court process or not. He/she considers the following factors in establishing whether the minor will benefit from the juvenile’s court rehabilitative services:
- The severity of the offense
- The past criminal record
- How successful the previous attempts for rehabilitating the child were
- The degree of criminal sophistication the child exhibited
In case the judge rules that rehabilitation won’t benefit your child, the minor is taken to adult court.
Find a Skilled Juvenile Delinquency Defense Lawyer Near Me
Children usually act and make mistakes without considering the repercussions of their actions. It’s part of their growth and development process. These children shouldn’t be judged harshly and made to go through the justice system that could affect them psychologically and emotionally. SB 439 has made sure of this to a given extent. With SB 439 in place, children’s mistakes should also not follow them into their future. Unfortunately, the juvenile justice system does not share the same opinion and is more concerned with proving the child committed a mistake, which leaves a criminal record.
At the Leah Legal law firm, we consider minors developing members in our communities who have to be given all benefits the law can offer, including SB 439. We may help defend your child’s rights if he/she is facing charges in Van Nuys, CA. Contact us today at 818-484-1100 to schedule a free consultation.