Juvenile justice court process

When someone under 18 is accused of breaking the law, the case is usually handled in juvenile justice (or delinquency) court. This is very different than the adult criminal court. This section provides basic information and an overview of the juvenile court process.


Looking for a copy of a juvenile record?

They are confidential. Only certain parties and their lawyers have access to a juvenile court file. In some cases, a judge can order access to a juvenile court file.

This section only has general information. 

If you need more information or advice, talk to a lawyer

How the case starts

Juvenile justice court cases start with the filing of a petition

The Probation Department or the District Attorney can file the petition. A petition asks the court to get involved. It says what the state thinks the youth did. It is the judge’s job to decide if the petition is true.

The youth and their parents have the right to get a copy of the petition. Usually, victims and others do not have a right to a copy. The petition says what the child is accused of. It does not mean the youth is guilty. 

If a youth is accused of committing a serious offense as a 16 or 17-year-old, the district attorney could ask that they be tried in adult criminal court. Serious offenses usually involve violence or weapons. For example, murder, rape, or crimes with a gun. 

There are big differences between juvenile court and adult court. If the state wants to try a youth as an adult, they can be sent to adult prison(CDCR) if found guilty. Or, if after the Transfer Hearing (see information below) the judge orders they stay in juvenile court, they could be sent to the Division of Juvenile Justice, until it is closed on June 30, 2023.   

  • 602 Petition

    The District Attorney’s Office files this petition. It says that a child did something that would be a crime if they were 18 or older. This can be a felony, like breaking into a home, drug sales, rape, or murder, or a misdemeanor, like assault or drunk driving. If the judge decides the petition is true, the child becomes a “ward” of the court as a “delinquent.” What happens to the youth, the "punishment", depends on what the youth did.

There is another type of petition, the 601 Petition. This is a less common type of petition. It says that a child ran away, skipped school, broke curfew, or continuously disobeyed their parents — things that are only against the law because they are done by children. If the judge decides the petition is true, the child can become a “ward” of the court and be called a “status offender.”

The court process

Detention or initial hearing

This is the first court date. It's similar to an arraignment in adult court. At the hearing, the youth

  • Gets a lawyer if they don't already have one
  • Is told what they are accused of
  • Can enter a plea (for example, admit or deny what they're accused of)

If the youth is in custody, the judge will decide if the youth should be kept in custody or stay at home. Unlike in adult court, there is no "bail". 

Parents can ask to talk to the judge. The youth's lawyer will speak for the youth.  Victims may also speak to the judge. The judge may also ask people in the courtroom questions or some may be a witness.  The district attorney will speak for the government.

If you don't understand or speak English well, you can ask for an interpreter. Ask the court for one before the hearing date. 

Pretrial conference and motion hearings

These court dates may have different names, like a status or a settlement conference. The purpose is to see if the case can be settled or needs to go to trial. The attorneys can also discuss any issues about evidence (discovery). If one of them needs the judge to make a legal decision, they can file a motion to ask the judge to make a decision about an issue.

Transfer hearing: for those over 15 accused of a serious crime

If a youth is accused of committing a serious crime when they were at least 16 years old, they may have a court hearing so a judge can decide whether they should be tried as an adult in adult criminal court or stay in juvenile court. 

Jurisdictional hearing: the trial

This is when a trial can happen. Or, the youth may admit some or all of the charges instead of having a trial. If the youth does admit, their lawyer will help them with what to say.

If there is a trial, the judge decides if the youth did what they're accused of. There is not a jury trial. The District Attorney must prove the youth did what they're accused of beyond a reasonable doubt. The youth's attorney will put on a defense.

If the judge decides there's not enough evidence to say the youth did what they're accused of, the case will be dismissed. The youth can go home.

If the judge decides the youth did what they're accused of, then the judge will decide what should happen (the "punishment"). This could be the same day or a later date.

Disposition hearings: judge decides what should happen (the "punishment")

At the disposition hearing, the judge will read a report written by the youth's Probation Officer. It may include statements from the youth, their parents, and others. If there is a victim, they may go to the hearing and speak. The victim (and the parents if the victim is a child) will get a notice about the hearing.

The probation officer's report will include

  • What the probation officer thinks should happen 
  • A statement about what the youth child did, including a copy of the arrest report
  • Statements from the youth, their family, and other people who know the youth well
  • A school report
  • A statement from the victim

The judge may let the youth stay home but put them on probation. For example, the judge may:

  • Order the youth to stay at home with probation supervision for up to 6 months
  • Order the youth to stay home with formal supervision from a probation officer. The judge will set up the formal supervision and set rules the youth must follow.
If the youth is put on probation
The probation officer will enforce the court’s orders. The officer will keep an eye on the youth to make sure they obey the law and follows the terms of probation. The officer will try to get the youth involved in school and community programs, and in job training or counseling. The officer may meet with the youth once a month or more often.

The judge may also decide the youth can't live at home. The judge may:

  • Put the youth on probation and order that they live with a relative, in a foster home or group home, or in an institution. A probation officer must find a place for the youth to live.
  • Put the youth on probation and send them to a probation camp or ranch
  • Order the youth to a Secure Youth Treatment Facility
  • In rare cases, rather than transfer the case to adult criminal court, send the youth to the Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) 
Get more information about group homes, probation camps and ranches, secure youth treatment facilities, and the DJJ.

A group home is a privately run facility that contracts with the county to provide therapeutic programs to youth who live there. The court decides how long the youth stays. Usually, these facilities are in the community, so sometimes youth go to regular public school while living there, and sometimes the facility runs its own school. Youth receive counseling services in the group home.  

A probation ranch or camp is a facility operated by the county, or a neighboring county, where youth live, usually for a several-month period set by the court. They attend school, participate in counseling and other programs, and are prepared to be successfully returned to the community and their family.  

A secure youth treatment facility is for youth who are found to have committed the most serious offenses. The court will commit a youth for a specific amount of time and will review the case periodically. The youth lives there, attends school, and receives rehabilitative services based upon an individualized case plan approved by the court.    

DJJ is a state-run, locked youth facility for only those youth who commit the most serious offenses and who the court could have sent to adult criminal court. It is run by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. DJJ is set to close in June 2023.  

If you are a parent and your child is sent to a group home, probation ranch or camp, secure treatment facility, or to the (DJJ): 

  • Stay in touch with your child (ask the probation officer about when you can see your child) 

  • Be supportive of the good things your child is doing 

  • Understand what is going on in your child’s life so you can support and protect your child when they return home 

  • Learn how to make your child responsible for their behavior 

    Review hearings

    Sometimes there are hearings to see how the youth is doing in their placement. Anyone who participated in the previous court hearings has a right to attend a review hearing. 

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