Minors who are arrested in California for committing a crime are treated differently than adults. Children are typically processed in juvenile court for matters of delinquency. The goal is to reinstate moral standards, not discipline minors.
If a minor commits a serious crime, the penalties may be severe. In California, a child at least 16 years or older may be sent to adult court for adjudication of a criminal case.
Who Is Considered a Minor in California?
In most states, 18 is the age at which a person is considered an adult. Anyone under the age of 18 is considered a minor in the state of California. Minors who commit crimes are tried in juvenile court. In special circumstances, a child may be tried as an adult.
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Transferring a Juvenile Case to Adult Court
It’s important to note that juvenile court serves a different purpose than adult court. Adult court is meant to penalize criminal behavior while juvenile court aims to rehabilitate minors and deter future criminal acts. Community programs may offer the education and support a child needs to become a productive member of society.
While most children will be tried in juvenile court, a prosecutor may file a petition for a fitness hearing in juvenile court. A juvenile court judge will determine if the minor is unfit for rehabilitation, in which case the minor will be sent to adult court.
Minor Protection Granted by Senate Bill 1391
In September 2018, Governor Brown signed Senate Bill 1391. This bill allows a district attorney to file a motion that would transfer a minor from juvenile court to an adult court of criminal jurisdiction. The minor must have been at least 16 years old at the time of the offense or at least 18 years old when they were arrested.
In the past, select circumstances would allow children as young as 14 to be sent to adult court for adjudication of a criminal case in California. However, a minor had to be facing very serious criminal charges. The passing of Senate Bill 1391 protects 14 and 15-year-olds from being shuffled into the adult criminal justice system when they may still benefit from youth services.
When deciding whether there is reason to transfer a case from juvenile court to adult court, the following element will be taken into consideration:
- The seriousness of the crime committed
- Previous delinquent activity
- The minor’s level of maturity
- The minor’s likelihood of being rehabilitated in juvenile court
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What Crimes May Lead a Minor to Be Tried in Adult Court?
According to Cal. Welf. and Inst. Code §707, a minor may be tried as an adult after committing a serious crime. To be sent to adult court for adjudication of a criminal case, a minor has to be charged with a felony, such as:
- Attempted murder
- Assault with a firearm
- Drive-by shooting
If a child is 17 years old or younger and commits a misdemeanor, they will most likely be tried in juvenile court.
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What Penalties Can a Minor Face in Adult Court?
If convicted of a criminal case in juvenile court, a child can be sentenced to time in either the California Department of Corrections or the Division of Juvenile Facilities. When a minor is tried as an adult, the potential consequences are even more serious. A minor who is tried in adult court can be sentenced similarly to an adult, including:
- Jail or prison time in adult facilities
- A life sentence without parole
There is, however, a distinct difference. Minors cannot receive the death penalty in California.
Is It Better to Be Tried in Juvenile Court or Adult Court?
Generally, it is better for a child to be tried in juvenile court rather than adult court. This is because the penalties in juvenile court are not as harsh. If a minor aged 16 or 17 is charged with a felony, an experienced criminal defense attorney may file a motion to reduce the felony to a misdemeanor charge to keep the case in juvenile court.