One of the main differences between the juvenile justice system and the adult criminal justice system in California is that the former is largely oriented toward rehabilitation, while the latter has a stronger emphasis on punishment.

The philosophy behind the juvenile justice system is that juveniles are immature and their behavior is still forming. That means, even if the crime committed may be serious, rehabilitation is the preferred route to help young people learn from their mistakes and become productive citizens. Adults, considered more responsible for their actions, are usually held to a higher standard and punished more harshly than minors.

However, sometimes a case is moved out of the juvenile court’s jurisdiction and is tried in adult criminal court. In these cases, juveniles can face much harsher penalties. We’ll break down how the system works below, and as always, if you or someone you love is facing criminal charges, a skilled defense attorney can review the specific facts of your case and advise you on the best route forward.

California Proposition 21 allows for youths to be tried in adult courts

In 2000, California voters passed Proposition 21. This law allows minors older than 14 to be tried in adult court in some limited cases, including gang-related felonies, certain sex crimes and homicide.

The law also outlines certain offenses for which minors can be automatically tried as adults. These offenses include murder with special circumstances as well as some sex crimes.

How a juvenile case can end up in adult criminal court

Generally speaking, a juvenile case can end up in adult court through one of two routes:

  1. The case is moved to adult court following a “fitness hearing” (also called a “transfer hearing”). A fitness hearing is a legal proceeding in which the court determines whether it’s appropriate for a minor to be tried as an adult.
  2. The case is filed directly in adult court, either by the discretion of the prosecutor or due to qualifying criteria in the case.

We’ll get into the specifics below.

1. The case is transferred to adult court after a juvenile court ‘fitness hearing’

For a juvenile case to be transferred to adult criminal court, the prosecutor on the case must first believe that there is a pressing reason to move the case to adult court. If they do, they will file a fitness petition, which will trigger a fitness hearing (also referred to as a transfer hearing).

What is a fitness hearing?

A fitness hearing is a legal proceeding in which a juvenile court judge determines whether it’s appropriate for a minor to be tried as an adult. In this hearing, the court will consider five factors:

  1. The degree of criminal sophistication exhibited by the minor.
  2. Whether the minor can be rehabilitated prior to the expiration of the juvenile court’s jurisdiction.
  3. The minor’s previous criminal record.
  4. Success of previous attempts by the juvenile court to rehabilitate the minor.
  5. The circumstances and gravity of the offense alleged in the petition to have been committed by the minor.

If, after considering these factors, the court determines that it is indeed appropriate to transfer the case to adult criminal court, it will do so.

When can a prosecutor file a fitness petition?

A prosecutor can file a fitness petition in any of these three cases:

  1. The juvenile is at least 16 years old and has been alleged to have committed any crime;
  2. The juvenile is 16 years or older and has allegedly committed a felony where he or she has previously been made a ward of the court and found to have committed two or more felony offenses while over the age of 14; or
  3. The juvenile is at least 14 years old and is alleged to have committed an offense specified in Welfare & Institutions Code 707(b).

We’ll cover some of those those offenses in the section below.

Crimes that make a juvenile eligible to be tried as an adult

Under Section 707(b), there are certain crimes that can make a juvenile eligible to be tried as an adult. These include, but aren’t limited to:

  • Arson causing great bodily injury or of an inhabited structure
  • Attempted murder
  • Carjacking
  • Drive-by shooting
  • Murder
  • Oral copulation by force or fear
  • Rape with force, violence or threat of great bodily harm
  • Robbery
  • Violent felonies
  • Voluntary manslaughter

2. The case is directly filed in adult court on the discretion of the prosecutor, or based on qualifying criteria

In certain cases, a juvenile case can be directly filed in adult criminal court. Under California Welfare & Institutions Code Section 707(d), prosecutors have discretion to file charges against juveniles 14 and older in adult court if the minor has previously been adjudicated for prior offenses that would have been felonies had they been committed by an adult. As well, some cases automatically qualify for adult court.

Crimes that automatically qualify a minor to be tried as an adult

Under California Welfare & Institutions Code Section 602(b), there are certain offenses that require a juvenile older than 14 to be tried as an adult. These include, but aren’t limited to:

  • Murder with special circumstances if the prosecutor alleges that the minor personally killed the victim
  • Certain sex crimes, including:
    • Forcible sexual penetration
    • Gang rape
    • Lewd and lascivious acts on a child under 14 involving force, violence or threat of great bodily injury
    • Rape with force, violence or threat of great bodily harm
    • Sodomy or oral copulation by force, violence or threat of great bodily injury

What consequences can someone face if their case is moved to the adult criminal court system?

When a criminal case makes its way through the juvenile court system, the worst-case scenario is that the defendant is committed to the California Department of Corrections, Division of Juvenile Facilities until their 25th birthday.

When their case is moved outside of the juvenile system, the consequences can be much more severe. Those convicted in the adult criminal court system face a number of penalties, including much longer jail sentences.

In addition to legal consequences, those convicted in the adult court system may find it difficult to find employment, secure housing, and be admitted into college or universities.

Can juvenile offenders receive the death penalty or life without parole?

No. In 2005, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Roper v. Simmons that it was unconstitutional to sentence juvenile offenders to death. In 2010, they found in Graham v. Florida that life sentences for juveniles convicted of non-homicide offenses is also unconstitutional.

These rulings have made it clear that juvenile offenders cannot be sentenced to the death penalty, and only in extreme cases, can they be sentenced to life without parole.

Can the decision to move a juvenile case to adult court be appealed?

Yes. If a juvenile case has been moved to adult criminal court, the minor or their legal representative can appeal the decision with a writ petition no later than 20 days after the first arraignment that led to their transfer.

If the juvenile can’t prove by a preponderance of evidence that they belong in the juvenile system, the case will proceed in adult court.

Robert M. Helfend is an SuperLawyers and Lead Counsel rated criminal defense attorney who has been representing clients in Los Angeles County for more than 30 years.

If you or a loved one is facing charges as a juvenile, contact us today to schedule your free consultation and discuss your legal rights and options. We are dedicated to providing aggressive, effective representation and helping our clients achieve the best possible outcome. Call today – 830-834-6434.