The law handling juvenile offenses is found in the California Welfare and Institutions Code (not the Penal Code). This is actually a good thing because the primary focus in juvenile law proceedings is “rehabilitation,” not “punishment” (although it may seem like that to the minor!). In fact, there are many programs and resources that are made available to juvenile offenders in the hope that the minor will not re-offend.
While there are additional restrictive means to handle minors (home on probation, detention, suitable placement, or the California Youth Authority), it is precisely because of the desire to rehabilitate the minor that alternative programs exist. Given that there are many factors, reasons or circumstances that may cause a minor to commit a criminal offense (broken homes, substance abuse, mental health problems, etc.), it is imperative to highlight and illustrate these issues through school records, medical health providers, social workers, and counsellors/therapists. Presented with credible and relevant information beneficial to the minor, juvenile court prosecutors and judges are keen to provide minors (or, at least assist them) with the resources necessary to deal with the specific challenges facing the minor.
Given the emotional toll and stress that a minor (not to mention his/her family) can go through before, during and after juvenile proceedings, a minor should meet with an attorney who is familiar with juvenile law and who is able to be an effective advocate for the young client. It is important that the attorney recognizes the immaturity and other factors that may have influenced the minor and be able to develop strategies helpful to the minor. It is equally important that these strategies are seen as effective and relevant by the local prosecutor and court. The following discussions involve legal remedies and programs designed to offer minors a second chance”, and hopefully, without the worry of carrying a criminal record into their adult lives.
Informal diversion (Penal Code section 654) applies to many misdemeanor offenses (including, but not limited to, DUI & drug offenses, theft, vandalism, and assault/battery) and provides that if the minor elects to participate in the program and remains out of trouble for a six-month period while performing some community service, among other obligations, the case is terminated. This diversion program does not require the minor to admit the violation in order to be eligible to participate.
Deferred Entry of Judgement
In more serious cases, including many felonies, there is another program similar to informal supervision above. Known as “deferred entry of judgment” or DEJ (Welfare & Institutions Code section 790), this program requires the minor to serve a full year of probation, with certain conditions/obligations, after which the case will also be dismissed. This diversion program however, requires that the minor admit the charges in the petition (criminal complaint). Should the minor fail in DEJ, the court can impose a sentence immediately.
Offenses Committed in the City of Santa Clarita
In the City of Santa Clarita, there exist two diversion programs specifically designed for minors, “SCV Teen Court” and “SCV Community Court”. Both programs are also designed to give first-time youthful offenders, who have committed low-level offenses, (infractions, traffic matters, and misdemeanors) an opportunity to earn a dismissal of their criminal case or traffic matter. An additional benefit is that these cases are handled at the City of Santa Clarita City Hall council chambers (the last Thursday of every month when school is in session), and not at the Sylmar Juvenile Court. For those minors who are interested and believe they may qualify to participate, an early discussion with an experienced, local attorney can help direct the case to the appropriate Santa Clarita sheriff’s personnel for consideration.
Again, in juvenile law proceedings, the goal/hope is that the minor can recognize the wrong in what he/she has done, correct their decision-making, and possess the tools (commitment and desire) and resources (counselling and proper support) to move forward in a positive manner. Much evaluation of the minor will be assessed not only by the facts of the offense, but also by their performance (attendance and academics) in school, as well as their behavior at home! Relevant counselling, where needed, will also play a prominent role in the assessment of a minor’s ability to change/correct behavior.