Juvenile delinquency fitness hearings
Can your child be tried as an adult?
The answer is yes, it is possible. And it is becoming increasingly more possible across the country with every new headlines-grabbing offense. The old adage is correct; bad cases make bad laws. In recent years, the media has reported numerous child schoolyard shootings, murders, rapes and other serious and violent offenses. In the Pennsylvania case of Jordan Brown, prosecutors attempted to try an 11 yr. old as an adult for the shooting death of his father’s pregnant fiancee, something unheard of before then. In that case, the court ultimately sent the matter back to juvenile court, however, the mere fact that the prosecutor felt comfortable attempting it speaks of monumental changes within the juvenile justice system.
In California, a child may be tried as an adult as early as 14 years old pursuant to the Welfare & Institutions Code section 707 et seq. Depending on the magnitude of the crime and the minor’s prior criminal history, filing in adult court may be discretionary or the court may presume the minor should be tried in adult court. However, the analysis is the same. The judge must use the following criteria in making its determination:
- The degree of criminal sophistication exhibited by the minor.
- Whether the minor can be rehabilitated prior to the expiration of the juvenile court’s jurisdiction.
- The minor’s previous delinquent history.
- Success of previous attempts by the juvenile court to rehabilitate the minor.
- The circumstances and gravity of the offenses alleged in the petition to have been committed by the minor.
With this stringent criteria, it would seem that filing in adult criminal court is difficult. It is not. I once represented a 16 year old accused of robbery. One night, he went to a local grocery store on a “beer run”, or an attempt to steal beer. He placed a 12 pack in his back pack and walked out of the store. The loss prevention officer chased after him and grabbed his back pack as he fled. He wiggled free from the back pack, which dropped to the ground causing the loss prevention officer’s arm to pop out of her socket. She later stated that he jerked the back pack away from her, deliberately using force to steal the beer. He had no prior criminal record.
So far, this seems like a very typical juvenile crime. Bad behavior, yes, but certainly not rape or murder. However, to my client’s surprise, at his first court hearing, the district attorney announced they would attempt to try my client as an adult. The matter was thoroughly investigated and we discovered an extremely helpful store video. And, after several arduous court dates, the court ultimately ruled that he should be tried as a juvenile. He later plead to a misdemeanor. It was, perhaps, the most stressful time in my client’s young life.
The point of this is that, despite the seemingly stringent requirements to try a minor as a juvenile, those are almost meaningless depending in the political climate of the times. It seems disturbing enough that the prosecutor, who is mandated by law to seek justice, felt that these circumstances justified such an attempt. However, had my client committed this act around the same time as Columbine or the Jordan Brown’s case, the court may have been inclined to make an example of my client and force him to face a strike offense as an adult. We live in a world where many jurisdictions (such as California) pick judges by election. As former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has said, the pressures of the electoral process necessarily influences a judges’ rulings. Had that been the case during my client’s case, things might have turned out very differently for him.
If your child is faced with a felony petition, no matter how small the matter seems, it is important to choose a lawyer competent in juvenile court to effectively fight for your child’s future.