Juvenile Case Process

Children under the age of 18 who have been arrested or charged with a crime are first sent to juvenile court. The juvenile justice system is based on the premise that although children may violate the same laws as adults, due to their lack of maturity, children need a different response.

Teenage years are years of trial and error, short-term judgment and peer pressure. Home life and neighborhood situations influence developing children. Most youths who are arrested do not reoffend as adults. Intelligent intervention, supervision, detention and treatment can usually correct delinquent behavior.

Frequently Asked Questions

Adults are arrested for law violations. The term used in juvenile court to describe an arrest of a child is “taken into custody.”

When a child is taken into custody for the first or second time (and the charge is relatively minor and non-violent), the state may suggest the child participate in a juvenile diversion program instead of formal court proceedings. These juvenile diversion programs are Delinquency Prevention Services (DPS) and the Post Arrest Diversion Program, both operated by the Miami-Dade Juvenile Services Department. Participation is voluntary. The programs include a contract in which the state agrees not to prosecute the child if the child agrees to meet certain conditions. If the child fails to complete the diversion program requirements, the child can be brought back to court for further prosecution.

Children taken into custody in Miami-Dade County are transported to the Juvenile Assessment Center (JAC), a centralized processing center, by the arresting police agency.

At the JAC, the child may be evaluated and questioned regarding his life, family and peers as well as his or her involvement in the charges. The answers the child gives at the JAC will be shared and used by state agencies including the police and the state Attorney’s Office.

A DJJ probation officer at the JAC conducts a detention risk assessment to determine whether the child can be legally detained before the first court hearing. The risk assessment is based on a point system. Points are assigned for each charge. The more serious the charge, the more points assigned. There are additional points for having a delinquency history with the juvenile justice system. The DJJ uses the point score to determine whether the juvenile may be released or will be detained at the Juvenile Detention Center, a temporary holding facility for juveniles similar to jail in the adult system. Generally, if the child is taken into custody on a third degree felony charge of violence or any higher degree of felony, the child will be detained and transported from the JAC to the Juvenile Detention Center.

A detained juvenile is not entitled to bond. The child will appear before a judge for a detention hearing within 24 hours.
The child can be confined for up to 21 days while awaiting judicial disposition of the charges.  
 
Detention Hearing 
 
If the child is detained, the child will be taken before a judge within 24 hours for a detention hearing. The purpose of the detention hearing is for the judge to: 
  • Explain the nature of charges against the child 
  • Determine whether the police had probable cause to take the child into custody 
  • Determine whether the child’s family can pay for an attorney, and if they cannot, appoint the Public Defender 
  • Set a date for the adjudicatory hearing (trial) 
  • Determine whether the continued detention of the child is necessary 
If the judge determines that the child should remain detained, the judge has three levels of juvenile detention available: home detention, non-secure detention and secure detention.
 
Pre-trial detention cannot exceed 21 days without a hearing.
 
Juvenile Detention 
 
The three levels of juvenile detention are: home detention, non-secure detention and secure detention.
 
Home detention is similar to “house arrest” in the adult system. A youth can be placed at home, the home of a responsible friend or relative, a dependency shelter or foster home setting. The DJJ will make periodic face-to-face and telephone contact with the youth, the youth’s family and school personnel. The child cannot leave the home except to attend school without special permission. The judge may require that the youth wear an electronic monitoring device. 
 
Non-secure detention is an alternative with a home-like setting. The provider of the non-secure detention is responsible for ensuring that the youth receives adequate supervision and attends school, court and scheduled appointments. The provider also must supply proper food, shelter, medicine and recreational opportunities. The judge may require the youth to wear an electronic monitoring device. 
 
Secure detention is a jail-like facility operated by the DJJ. The judge may order secure detention for a youth depending on the charges, previous history, home and school assessments and public safety concerns. 
 
Possible Transfer to Adult Court
 
The prosecutor may seek to have a child transferred to adult court. In that case, the prosecutor typically announces the state’s intent to “direct file” the child into adult court at the detention hearing. The case is reset for the state to report on its direct file decision. If the child is detained, the reset date remains 21 days from the date the child was taken into custody.
If a juvenile is charged with certain felony offenses, the case may be transferred to the adult criminal division where the juvenile will be prosecuted in the same way as adults charged with law violations. If a child is found guilty or pleads guilty in adult court and is sentenced as an adult, that child is forever considered an adult for future violations of state law. A juvenile’s case may be transferred to adult criminal court in three ways:
 
  • The state can seek to have a grand jury indict, or charge, juveniles of any age. Indictments are usually for offenses that are punishable by death or life imprisonment, and cases where the child is younger than 14 years old
  • A waiver motion is a request made by the prosecutor asking the juvenile court judge to transfer a child who is at least 14 years old to adult court. The judge conducts a hearing and reviews the child’s history, the charge and potential for rehabilitation, then either grants or denies the prosecutor’s request. The judge’s decision is based on legal criteria, the facts of the case and the child’s circumstances. A child of any age, with the consent of parent or guardian, can also request to be waived to adult court
  • A direct file is a transfer to adult court by the prosecutor. There are two types of direct file: mandatory and discretionary. The juvenile court judge can’t prevent the transfer and no hearing will take place. This means that these juveniles have been transferred without the benefit of a judicial hearing, so there has been no judgment by a neutral judicial officer that there are services in the adult system for them, or that they are inappropriate for services in a juvenile court. Mandatory direct files stem from a state law requiring that for certain crimes a child 16 years and older be tried as an adult. The law allows no exception. The discretionary direct file law allows the prosecutor to file charges for certain crimes against a child 14 years or older in adult court. The decision to send a discretionary case to the adult court lies solely with the prosecutor. A judge cannot reverse a prosecutor’s discretionary decision to direct file a case, even if he disagrees. The prosecutorial decision to direct file a discretionary case is non-reviewable and non-appealable. If the prosecutor chooses to direct file, the charging document will be filed in adult criminal court
Learn more about the adult court case process.
The prosecutor has the discretion to file formal charges. The charging document which formally accuses the child of a criminal violation is called a delinquency petition. The prosecutor may file the petition even if witnesses do not want to testify against the child or do not want the case to proceed.
 
In some cases, the prosecutor can file charges against children as young as 14 years old in the adult court division. If this occurs, the juvenile will be prosecuted in the same way as an adult. That is, the child may be transferred to adult jail and face adult court sanctions.
An arraignment is referred to as a “sounding” in juvenile court. A sounding is a hearing in which the judge informs the child of the formal charges in the delinquency petition and, if the child qualifies, appoints the public defender. The sounding for a detained child must be held within 48 hours following the filing of a delinquency petition. At the sounding, the child typically enters a plea of not guilty and the case is set for an adjudicatory hearing (trial). The adjudicatory hearing is the equivalent of a bench trial in adult court.
The child needs to meet with the defense attorney to discuss the case sometime between the sounding date and the trial date. The defense attorney will begin preparing for trial by filing motions, investigating allegations and other aspects of the case as well as taking depositions and interviewing witnesses. The client has the right to assist in the preparation of his own defense.
 
One of the most significant ways a client can assist in the preparation of his defense is by providing the defense attorney with the names and addresses of witnesses not listed by the prosecution who can testify to circumstances that may prove the client is not guilty or help show that the crime is not as serious as the prosecutor suggests.
 
The client and his family must not contact the alleged victim or the witnesses listed by the prosecution or send other people to talk to them because the prosecutor may charge the client with an additional crime of tampering with witnesses. It is the defense attorney’s job to speak to the witnesses and alleged victim.
 
The defense attorney may file motions requesting the witness list, police reports, witnesses' statements, reports of experts and any other evidence in the case. The process by which the prosecution and the defense search for the facts of the case is called discovery. The deposition of witnesses is a discovery tool for uncovering the facts. In a deposition, the prosecutor and defense counsel are present to take the sworn statements of witnesses. Discovery depositions are very useful for both sides because it allows them to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the case prior to trial.
 
The defense attorney may speak with the prosecutor to get some idea of the prosecutor’s evaluation of the case. Depending on the strength of the defense’s case, the prosecutor may decide to dismiss all charges, offer a lesser sentence or drop some of the charges against the child in exchange for a plea of guilty or no contest to other charges.
 
In nearly 98 percent of juvenile cases, there is no trial. Cases are disposed of by the prosecutor not filing charges, the case being dismissed, the client entering a guilty or no contest plea, or completing a diversion program.
A client can change his plea of not guilty to either guilty or no contest at any time. A guilty or no contest plea can also be negotiated among the prosecutor, the defense attorney and the client. In exchange for the client’s acceptance of the negotiated plea, the prosecutor may drop or reduce charges, or agree to a lesser sentence.
 
If the prosecutor makes a plea offer, the defense attorney has an ethical duty to tell the client about the plea offer, even if the client has previously told the attorney that he wants to go to trial. The client has the right to accept or reject a plea offer. If the plea is guilty or no contest, the client gives up significant rights and may face serious consequences.
 
Nonetheless, the defense attorney can offer advice. Before accepting the guilty or no contest plea, the judge will ensure that evidence in the case supports a finding of guilt and that the client understands his or her rights, was not improperly pressured to accept the plea, understands what he or she is doing, and voluntarily agrees to the plea.
 
If the judge accepts the plea, the judge will then proceed to sentence the client.
 
When a client enters a guilty or no contest plea, he or she relinquishes certain rights, such as the right to:
  • Investigate the case further
  • Proceed to trial
  • Have an attorney represent him at trial
  • Compel the attendance of witnesses at trial
  • Confront witnesses who testify against him
  • Testify at trial
  • Remain silent at trial
  • Appeal
Disposition Hearing (Sentencing)
 
A disposition hearing in the juvenile system is the same as a sentencing hearing in adult court. However, the judge in juvenile court cannot sentence a child to serve time in jail. In the adult system, the focus of sentencing is only punishment. In the juvenile system, the judge focuses on the child’s needs and strengths, and combines treatment with discipline.
 
The judge generally orders the DJJ to prepare a predisposition report (PDR), which includes information about the family, school, education, psychological and delinquent history of the child, as well as recommendations for the judge to consider at disposition. Before the disposition hearing, the child and his family should meet with the defense attorney and the DJJ probation officer to decide on the most appropriate intervention.
 
The judge has sentencing options. The judge can place the child on probation with many kinds of conditions and restrictions, such as curfew, repaying the victim for any damages or performing community service hours. The judge can place the child under the custody of the DJJ, in which the child can then be placed in a commitment program where they will receive education and treatment services. The judge can also send the child to mental health and drug treatment programs.
 
In cases in which the juvenile is accused of serious crimes, the judge can order the child to be held after disposition while awaiting placement in a residential treatment program.
 
Commitment Programs
 
Juveniles can be placed in either a non-residential (daytime only) or residential (overnight) commitment program. Florida law provides guidelines for the judge to follow when deciding to place a child in a commitment program. The guidelines are based on risk levels, ranging from low to maximum. Each level provides education and treatment services. The risk levels correspond to the degree of supervision the child requires — the higher the risk level the more intense the supervision.
 
The five levels of commitment programs range from minimum-risk non-residential (level 2) through maximum-risk residential (level 10). Programs in higher restrictiveness levels are characterized by tighter physical security, closer supervision and a longer length of stay. A child can be placed on long-term probation at a state school. The period of time the child remains at any facility depends greatly on both the risk level decided by the judge and the child’s progress.
 
If the child is unable or unwilling to successfully complete the program he or she was committed to, the DJJ can transfer the child to a different or more restrictive program. 
 
Appeals and Release on Bail
 
A client has no right to appeal a plea of guilty or no contest, except when the judge allows him to reserve the right to appeal a particular point of law. A client who is convicted at trial and wants to appeal the conviction must file a notice of appeal within 30 days of being sentenced and must advise the appellate court of the exact errors in the trial. The client or the defense attorney must convince the appellate court that the trial judge’s errors affected the outcome of the case.
 
Some common errors are that the judge did not follow the law or that the client was prevented from exercising his constitutional rights. In some cases, the judge may allow the client’s release on bail until a final decision has been reached by the appellate court. The judge will set a bond, pending the appeal, only if he believes the client has a good reason for appealing and that the client will reappear in court.
 
The client does not have an automatic right to bond during the appeal. It is possible that the client may serve the entire sentence during the appellate process.