Criminal cases involving minors in the state of Florida are handled by the Juvenile Justice System or “Department of Juvenile Justice” (DJJ), and generally, progress through the system a little differently than adult crimes.
Usually, juvenile crimes are moved through the system faster than adult cases. Unlike adult court, there are no juries in Juvenile Court and a Judge decides all trials. The Juvenile Justice System also differs from the adult system in that it focuses more on rehabilitation rather than punishment.
In some limited instances, juvenile cases are “Direct Filed” to adult court. While infrequently done, direct filed cases are usually the result of a repeat juvenile offender who has committed a serious crime.
Below is an overview of the typical process of a juvenile criminal case as it goes through the justice system:
Arrest, Release, and Detention
When a minor is taken into custody by law enforcement, they are then taken to the DJJ at the Juvenile Assessment Center (JAC.) A DJJ counselor then assesses each child and makes a report as to whether the child meets certain criteria for “secure detention;” or if they qualify for “non-secure detention” which allows them to be released into the custody of their parents/guardians. In cases of non-secure detention, the child remains under daily supervision from the DJJ counselor and failure to meet the requirements of non-secure detention may result in the child being held at the detention center.
If the child is held overnight, a detention hearing must be held within 24 hours of the arrest. A judge then determines whether to release the child or detain them; and if released, what conditions of release must be met by the child. If the child is detained, he or she must not remain in the detention center for more than 21 days, and in very limited circumstances up to, but not more than 30 days.
Between the time of the child’s arrest and the next court date, the State Attorney will review the facts of the case and determine what charges, if any, will be filed against the child. If there is enough evidence, the attorney will file a petition describing the charges against the child.
Arraignment usually takes place about three weeks after the arrest of the child. A hearing is held and the child is informed of any and all charges that are being filed against them by the state. They are then asked to enter a plea that can be guilty, not guilty or no contest. Having good legal counsel is extremely important during this process because a child and their parents/guardians may not fully understand the charges. An attorney can advise as to the best course of action and which plea is in the best interest of the child. In most cases, a trial is scheduled within about four weeks of the arraignment.
Between the arraignment date and the trial date, the attorneys engage in a process known as discovery. During that period, witnesses including the victim can be subpoenaed to give sworn testimony under oath to the defense attorney. The State Attorney is required to provide the defense with any reports, documents, or recordings, or other evidence they may have.
Pretrial Diversion Programs
Several programs may apply for first-time juvenile offenders in which they can participate. Each program is different, but all require the child to obey certain rules and complete certain sanctions which may include community service, letter(s) of apology, restitution, counseling, etc. Under a diversion program, the child has the opportunity to meet the requirements of the program and have the charges against them dropped. But if they fail to fulfill the requirements, then the charges will be fully prosecuted.
A juvenile defendant is allowed to change a guilty plea at any time. In certain cases the attorneys involved will work out plea agreements so that a trial can be avoided altogether.
Once a juvenile changes their plea to Guilty or No Contest, there is no trial. The case then proceeds to sentencing.
If no plea agreement is reached, then the case will proceed to trial. As mentioned above, with juvenile cases there are no juries involved, and a judge directly decides all verdicts and sentencing. The burden of proof is on the prosecution, and the state is required to prove “beyond and to the exclusion of every reasonable doubt” that the defendant committed the crime. There is no burden of proof on the defendant. Witnesses, including the victim, are subpoenaed to testify and be cross-examined by the defense.
Once the trial is completed, the judge will render their verdict. If the defendant is guilty, the Judge may order DJJ to prepare a predisposition report recommending sanctions for the child.
A predisposition report is an inquiry into the background, criminal history and family circumstances of the child. It is completed by the DJJ and then given to the defendant and their attorney, the judge, and the prosecuting attorney. The report will include a sentencing recommendation for the Judge to review. Even though the Judge may order the DJJ to complete a predisposition report, they are not required or completed for every case.
Once the trial is completed and the judge has rendered their verdict, a dispositional hearing or sentencing hearing will be held. The judge will sentence the child in a manner they deem appropriate for the crime and circumstances involved in each case. The Juvenile Court has jurisdiction over the defendant until his or her 19th birthday (or, under some rare circumstances to age 21.) There are two types of sentences that a judge may choose to impose:
- Probation: If placed on probation, a judge will likely impose community service, a letter of apology, counseling, etc.
- Commitment: If the judge commits to DJJ, the judge will commit the child to a level that is appropriate for their crime. There are currently four different levels of commitment:
- Low-risk programs that last from 30-45 days,
- Moderate risk programs that last from 4-6 months,
- High-risk programs that last from 6-9 months, and
- Juvenile prison that lasts from 18-36 months.
As cited above, the Juvenile Justice System involves a lot of different steps as well as people and departments. If your child or dependent has been arrested and or charged with a crime, it is vitally important to understand the process and be able to look out for their best interests.
Having the services of a good criminal attorney is a must for any case involving a child. Without good legal counsel, chances may be lost at clearing a child’s name or helping them minimize the long term consequences of their crime.
South Florida Criminal Attorney Evan Hoffman is highly experienced with cases involving juveniles. Having the help of someone like Hoffman can make all the difference for a child who is facing the court system.