When a person under the age of eighteen is charged with a crime in Florida, the case is often handled in the Juvenile Justice System.
The Juvenile Justice System is different than the adult Criminal Justice System because the focus is on rehabilitating juveniles, rather than punishing them. However, in limited instances, some 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. Contrary to popular belief, a juvenile offense can have serious consequences for both the child and the parent and legal guidance is extremely important.
The Stages of Juvenile Cases in the Court System
The stages of the Juvenile Justice System are different than the adult system and cases typically travel through the juvenile system much faster. Below is a general description of how a juvenile case will progress from beginning to end.
Arrest, Release, and Detention:
Once a juvenile is taken into custody, law enforcement delivers the child to the Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) at the Juvenile Assessment Center (JAC). A DJJ counselor will then prepare a risk assessment report to determine if the child meets the criteria for secure detention, a child may be released to their parent/guardian for non-secure detention, and he or she will receive daily supervision from a DJJ counselor. If the child fails to follow the rules of non-secure detention, the juvenile may be held in the detention center.
If the juvenile is held overnight, a detention hearing must be held within 24 hours of the arrest. A judge determines whether to release the juvenile, and if so, what conditions are necessary to protect the community and the public. If the Judge does not release the juvenile, he or she remains in the juvenile detention center for a period of no more than 21 days (or under very limited circumstances for a period of 30 days).
Between the time of the child's arrest and the next court date, the State Attorney's Office will review the facts of the case and determine what charges, if any, will be filed against the juvenile. If there is enough evidence, the attorney files a Petition describing the charges against the juvenile.
About three weeks after the arrest, a juvenile will appear for arraignment. This is a hearing where the juvenile is informed of the charges filed by the State and asked to enter a plea to those charges (Guilty, Not Guilty, or No Contest).
Between the arraignment date and the trial date the attorneys engage in a process known as discovery. During the discovery period any witness, including the victim, may be subpoenaed to give a sworn statement under oath to the defense attorney as to their knowledge of the case. The State Attorney will also be required to provide the defense with any reports, documents, or recordings they may have.
Pretrial Diversion Programs:
There are several programs for the first time juvenile offenders to participate in. Each program is different, but requires the juvenile to obey certain rules and complete certain sanctions. The sanctions may include community service, restitution, counseling, a letter of apology, etc. If the program is completed, the charges are dropped. If the juvenile does not fulfill the requirements of the program, the charges are reactivated and prosecution pursued.
A defendant may change a plea of Not Guilty at any time. In many cases, the State Attorney and defense will discuss how to resolve a case without a trial. Once a juvenile changes their plea to Guilty or No Contest, there is no trial and we proceed to disposition, which is the juvenile court equivalent of sentencing.
If no agreement can be reached, then the case will go to trial. There are no juries in Juvenile Court; a Judge decides all trials. The State is required to prove "beyond and to the exclusion of every reasonable doubt" that the defendant committed the crime. The defendant is not required to prove anything. Witnesses, including the victim, are subpoenaed to testify and may be cross-examined by the defense.
The Judge decides whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty, and announces the verdict aloud in the courtroom.
If the defendant is guilty, the Judge may order DJJ to prepare a Pre-Disposition Report (PDR) recommending sanctions for the juvenile.
Pre-Disposition Reports (PDR):
A PDR is an inquiry into the background, criminal history and family circumstances of the juvenile. It is completed by DJJ and given to the Judge, the defense attorney, the defendant and the Assistant State Attorney. The report includes a sentencing recommendation for the Judge to review. Although the Judge may order DJJ to complete a predisposition report, they are not required to be completed in all cases.
Once a defendant has been found guilty or enters a plea to a charge, a disposition hearing or sentencing hearing will be set. A judge sentences a juvenile in a manner appropriate to the crime and other circumstances related to the case. The Juvenile Court has jurisdiction over the defendant until his or her 19th birthday (or, under some rare circumstances to age 21).
The Judge may impose two types of sentences
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 juvenile to a level that is appropriate for his 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
- Maximum Risk programs that last from 18-36 months