One primary difference between California’s adult criminal system and the juvenile justice system is that the latter is significantly inclined toward rehabilitation, whereas the former strongly emphasizes punishment. The logic behind the juvenile justice system is that minors are immature, so their conduct is still developing. That means that whether or not the child's offense is severe, rehab is the ideal move to help them learn from their mistakes and be productive citizens. Grownups are often held to higher standards and penalized more severely than minors since they are deemed more responsible for their actions.

But sometimes, a minor’s case is moved from the juvenile justice system and prosecuted in adult court. Whether a case should be moved to adult court or not is determined during the transfer hearing. And if the transfer happens, the child can be subject to harsher penalties. Consequently, if your child has been accused of a crime, you want to hire a skilled attorney to represent them at the transfer hearing and fight to prevent their case from being moved to the adult criminal system.

At Chula Vista Criminal Attorney, our experienced juvenile delinquency attorneys can legally advise and represent your child, fighting for them to avoid trial under the adult criminal system. You can count on our skills to deliver legal services that consider your child’s best interests, whether during the transfer hearing or any other stage of the juvenile court process. We have assisted many young offenders facing a possible transfer to adult criminal court in successfully having their case remain in juvenile court, and we can do the same for your child.

Overview of Transfer Hearing

A transfer hearing is also called a fitness hearing. It is a proceeding in which a juvenile delinquency court judge determines whether a child offender is ‘fit’ to undergo juvenile court proceedings. When making the fitness decision, the judge considers five elements, including the severity of the supposed criminal offense and whether the child offender will be amenable to the rehab services provided in juvenile court. Should the judge decide that the child offender will not be amenable to the rehab services, the juvenile's case will be transferred to a California adult criminal court.

The prosecuting attorney can request a fitness proceeding when:

  • The child offender is sixteen years or more and is supposed to have perpetrated a felonious act or a criminal offense listed under Welfare and Institutions Code (WIC) 707(b) or.
  • The suspected offender was 15 or 14 when they supposedly perpetrated a crime specified under WIC 707(b) and were not arrested until they turned eighteen.

Consequently, the minimum age for prosecution in adult criminal court is sixteen years. This is thanks to the passage of Senate Bill 1391 in 2019. Now, minors below sixteen can never be tried in adult criminal court, irrespective of their violation or criminal history—their cases are handled exclusively in juvenile court. That means minors fifteen years or younger are not subject to the transfer proceeding.

Regarding timing, the fitness hearing comes after the detention proceeding and before the adjudication proceeding.

What Happens At The Detention Hearing?

The detention hearing is the initial court proceeding a suspected child offender attends after arrest. At this hearing, the juvenile court judge decides if the child offender can be set free pending the outcome of their case or whether they must stay at a juvenile hall. The judge establishes this based on various factors, including whether:

  • It is a matter of urgent and immediate necessity for the minor's protection that they remain detained.
  • The juvenile is a flight risk.
  • The child has escaped from the commitment of the juvenile court.
  • The child has disobeyed an order by the juvenile court.
  • For the protection of the public or another's property, it is reasonably necessary that the child remain detained.

The juvenile delinquency judge will solicit input from the child, their lawyer and parents, the probation officer, and the prosecuting attorney before deciding.

If the child loses at this hearing, their lawyer can request a rehearing. During the hearing, the juvenile's lawyer will cross-examine the law enforcement officer to ensure everything is correct.

The detention proceedings must occur within forty-eight hours of the child being transferred into custody if their crime is a non-serious and nonviolent misdemeanor. The forty-eight hours do not include holidays or weekends.

If the child is in juvenile hall for a felonious act or a misdemeanor involving violence, the proceedings must occur within 72 hours of the child being transferred to custody.

If the juvenile offender requests a rehearing, it must occur within three court days (or five court days if witnesses are unavailable) of the first detention hearing.

As a parent, you must be told about the place and time of the detention hearing. Failure to which, you can demand that another proceeding be scheduled within twenty-four hours so you can attend.

Once the detention hearing ends, the transfer hearing follows. The prosecuting attorney must give the child offender a five-day notice regarding the fitness hearing.

Criteria for Transferring a Juvenile to Adult Court

When deciding whether a child offender should be transferred to the adult criminal system or remain in juvenile delinquency court, the juvenile judge will consider these elements:

  • The level of criminal sophistication the minor exhibits—criminal sophistication refers to the show of well-thought-out and well-planned steps in perpetrating a criminal offense. Generally, it is unexpected for a juvenile to plan a violation with the same level of sophistication as a grownup. But should they do so, the juvenile delinquency court judge may deduce that their maturity level warrants them facing prosecution in adult criminal court.
  • Whether the juvenile can be fully rehabilitated before the juvenile delinquency court's jurisdiction expires—California’s juvenile court jurisdiction expires when a child offender attains 21 years. Once the jurisdiction terminates, the young offender is waived to adult court and will be treated like a grown-up and subject to the same consequences as a grown-up would.

However, if a child offender is fully rehabilitated before they attain 21 years, they will not need to be waived to the adult court. Thus, if the judge evaluates a child offender and determines that their rehabilitation will go beyond the time after the juvenile delinquency jurisdiction expires, they would suggest that their case moves to adult criminal court.

  • The child's past delinquent record—like in adult criminal court, the juvenile court judge considers the crimes the child previously perpetrated when deciding how to treat their recent violation. California authorities treat repeat offenders harshly. Thus, having a history of serious offenses would raise the juvenile's chances of being transferred to adult criminal court. That is because the juvenile court judge assumes the minor lacks regard for any treatment attempts and may therefore learn from the severe penalties they would face in adult criminal court.
  • The success of the juvenile delinquency court's previous attempts to rehab the child offender—it is unusual to see a first-offender juvenile committing severe crimes. In many cases, a fitness hearing is scheduled for repeat child offenders.

When deciding on the minor's fitness to be prosecuted in adult court, the juvenile delinquency court judge will evaluate the success of previous attempts at rehab. The child facing criminal charges for the second, third, or subsequent time may show they never learned from their previous mistakes. Consequently, the juvenile delinquency court judge will transfer the child to the adult criminal system to penalize them.

  • The severity and circumstances surrounding the violation alleged in the petition to have been perpetrated by the juvenile—the seriousness and nature of the minor's offense may be essential in deciding their fitness for prosecution in adult criminal court. If the juvenile committed a violent or serious felony, the juvenile judge would likely have them transferred for trial under the adult criminal system.

Ultimately, it is up to the child's defense lawyer to demonstrate that the child is unfit to be tried under the adult criminal system.

Crimes for Which a Juvenile Can Face Prosecution Under The Adult Criminal System

According to the state's WIC 707, the prosecuting attorney can request a fitness proceeding when the child offender is accused of committing one of the crimes specified under WIC 707(b). Remember, child offenders who were 15 or 14 during the commission of the supposed violation might not be tried under the adult criminal system unless they were placed under arrest after turning eighteen. WIC 797(b) violations are:

  • Murder.
  • Robbery.
  • Arson causing significant bodily harm or of a lived-in structure.
  • Rape with violence, force, or a threat of substantial bodily injury.
  • A lascivious or lewd act upon a minor under fourteen with violence, force, or threats of significant physical injury.
  • Sodomy achieved by violence, force, or threats of substantial bodily harm.
  • Sexual penetration by force.
  • Oral copulation achieved by violence, force, or threats of substantial bodily injury.
  • Kidnapping for robbery purposes.
  • Attempted murder.
  • Exploding a destructive device with the intent to commit murder.
  • Kidnapping with physical harm.
  • Kidnapping for ransom.
  • Assault using a destructive device or firearm.
  • Discharging a gun into an occupied or inhabited building.
  • Assault by use of force that is more likely to cause substantial bodily injury.
  • Escape from juvenile hall, ranch, camp, forestry camp, or home using violence or force if significant bodily harm is wilfully inflicted on the juvenile facility's employee.
  • A violent felony, which would also constitute a felony violation of PC 186.22(b) criminal street gang sentencing enhancement.
  • Compounding, selling, or manufacturing a half ounce or more of a salt or solution of a regulated substance specified under 11055(e) HSC.
  • A felony violation described under PC 137, bribery of a witness, or PC 136.1, dissuading a witness.
  • A felony offense where the child personally used a weapon listed under 16590(a) PC.
  • A violation described under PC 1203.09 against someone who is above sixty years old or disabled.
  • An offense described under 12022.5 PC personal use of a gun or PC 12022.53 10-20-life use a gun and you are done.
  • Aggravated mayhem.
  • Torture.
  • Kidnapping for sexual assault purposes.
  • Carjacking.
  • PC 26100 drive-by-shooting.
  • Kidnapping during the commission of a carjacking.
  • Voluntary manslaughter.

Appealing The Judge's Decision to Transfer a Minor to Adult Court

If a child offender loses at the fitness hearing, their case will be taken to adult court, and the child will be prosecuted per the rules and laws applicable to grownups. If the child wishes to contest the outcome of the transfer hearing, they must file a writ petition within twenty days after their first court appearance on the accusations that resulted in the transfer.

Life Without Parole or Capital Punishment for Minors

Child offenders are never subject to capital punishment. The Supreme Court of the United States clarified this in 2005 in Roper v. Simmons case. In this case, the highest court ruled that capital punishment for a child offender constitutes unusual and cruel punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Additionally, in 2010, the same court clarified further in the Graham v. Florida case that a child found criminally liable for a non-murder offense cannot be subject to the LWOP (life without the possibility of parole) sentence.

When A Child Is Directly Charged As Adult

Whereas most criminal cases are determined as described above, California voters enacted Proposition 21 in 2000, which permits a D.A. to directly file particular juvenile cases in adult court without a transfer hearing as soon as an investigation is completed and reported. Before filing a child's case in adult criminal court, the prosecutor must consider various factors, including:

  • Whether the child has a past criminal history and whether they were above 16 years old when they perpetrated the new offense.
  • Whether the child was 14 years old or more when they committed the crime.
  • Whether the juvenile is a ward of the court for a past felony offense.

The district attorney can file criminal charges directly in adult court if the child is accused of a serious violation, including:

  • Serious felonies that involve a weapon.
  • Premeditated murder.
  • Attempted murder.
  • Murder.
  • Aggravated kidnapping.
  • Some sex offenses that involve the application of force.

If the prosecutor determines the child should be prosecuted as a grown-up, the child will be subject to the same punishments and penalties an adult would, which might include a prison or jail term.

The child's lawyer can then present evidence in court to assist the judge in making the appropriate decision about the child and their guidance, care, and treatment. This includes placing the child on probation, keeping them in the home, or even dismissing the case.

If your young one has already been found guilty in adult court and you believe their legal rights were violated, you can have the child's lawyer assist you in filing an appeal to try to reverse their conviction and sentence.

The Effect of Transferring a Juvenile Offender to Adult Court

Even though the adult and juvenile court systems seek to safeguard the general public from criminal offenders, the two have several differences. The adult criminal court process leans more toward punishing offenders. Contrarily, the juvenile delinquency court aims to educate and rehabilitate young offenders and transform them into productive members of society. Prosecuting a minor as an adult has several effects, including the following:

  • Juveniles tried in juvenile delinquency court are not sentenced to prison—jail or prison conditions can be harsh, even for grown-ups. The mental trauma that comes with spending time in incarceration could substantially affect a minor’s development. Children found to have committed a crime under the juvenile justice system undergo rehab using mild approaches and can continue attending school and living their lives. When a child undergoes prosecution in adult criminal court, they will likely spend time in jail or prison once convicted.
  • Adult criminal convictions are deemed public records—the juvenile justice system aims to protect a juvenile’s reputation. The juvenile delinquency court process is confidential. Also, only a few individuals can access a minor’s criminal history, freeing the juvenile from the stigma resulting from their mistakes.

Sadly, when a child is prosecuted as a grownup, the process will not be as confidential as it would be in the juvenile justice system. A conviction by an adult criminal court will appear when a prospective employee, teacher, or anyone else conducts a criminal background check against the child.

What Happens If The Minor Remains Under The Juvenile Justice System?

The fitness hearing has two outcomes: the minor being transferred to adult criminal court if the juvenile court judge finds them fit or their case remaining under the juvenile justice system if they are found unfit for prosecution in adult court. If a minor’s case remains under the juvenile justice system, the adjudication hearing, also called the jurisdiction hearing, follows.

An adjudication hearing is the equivalent of a trial in adult criminal courts. During this proceeding, the juvenile court judge decides whether a child offender committed the violation alleged in the petition. The prosecutor will submit evidence to prove that the child in question committed the offense.

Note that whereas in adult court, the accused person is found not guilty or guilty of an offense by a jury, there are no not-guilty or guilty verdicts in juvenile delinquency court. Instead, the juvenile court judge decides whether or not the child broke the law. Additionally, there is no jury in juvenile delinquency courts; there is only a judge.

If the juvenile judge decides the child broke the law, they will find the allegations true and sustain the petition the prosecutor filed. Contrarily, the judge might decide the prosecution’s evidence is inadequate to demonstrate the child broke the law. Consequently, the judge will find the allegations untrue and not sustain the petition.

The jurisdiction hearing is the child’s chance to defend themselves against their supposed crime. The process may not be the same as in adult courts, but most essential procedural protections apply. For example, the child offender can:

  • Present their defense.
  • Subpoena witnesses.
  • Testify or decline to.
  • Cross-examine the prosecution’s witnesses.
  • Has a right against self-incrimination.
  • Is entitled to effective representation by counsel.
  • The prosecuting attorney must prove their case beyond any reasonable doubt.

The adjudication hearing happens within fifteen court days of the detention date if the child offender is in custody. But if the minor is released to return home after the detention proceeding, the adjudication hearing will happen within 30 days. The court can extend these timeframes if there is good cause. This extension is helpful if the minor’s lawyer wishes to investigate the case further and collect more evidence.

If the juvenile court judge sustains the prosecution’s petition and finds the accusations true, a disposition hearing follows, at which point the sentencing of the child occurs. But if they find the allegations against the child untrue, they will dismiss the case, and the minor will be free to return home. Some of the sentencing options the judge can impose against the minor if the case moves to the disposition hearing are custody at a probation camp, home on probation, suitable placement in a foster home, and commitment to the Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ).

Find an Experienced Juvenile Delinquency Attorney Near Me

If your child has been accused of a crime, hiring an expert juvenile delinquency attorney to help them is the best move, whether the child’s case is transferred to adult criminal court or remains under the juvenile justice system.

At Chula Vista Criminal Attorney, we boast knowledgeable juvenile delinquency lawyers who understand how the juvenile justice and adult court systems work. We will fight for your child during all the steps of the juvenile court process, including the transfer hearing, so their case does not move to adult court.

In the unfortunate event the case is moved to adult court, we will fight to ensure the child is not subject to the harsh penalties of a criminal conviction. We will strive to obtain a charge dismissal, and if that is not possible, we will negotiate a reduced charge and lenient sentence. Our approach to handling juvenile cases always considers the child’s best interests. Call us at 619-877-6894 for a consultation and to learn more about how we can help your child.