When a juvenile commits an offense in California, it is usually a trying time for the parents/guardian. Everyone wants what is best for their child, but sometimes it does not always happen. As a parent or guardian of a minor facing criminal charges, you are better off seeking the help of an experienced criminal lawyer. It is because California’s juvenile justice system is a little complex. You may not know what to do, what might happen next, and how you can protect your child’s rights.

Thus, if your child appears in juvenile court for a fitness hearing, you can be sure that your lawyer will defend him/her and ensure that your child’s best interests are served. At Los Angeles Criminal Lawyer, we’ll walk with you through the legal process until you obtain a favorable outcome of your loved one’s case.

Transfer Hearings — Overview

Minors in California commit criminal offenses, the same as adults. However, they do not face trial like adults in the California justice system. The state has a juvenile system through which minors go, for a judge to determine their case and give a verdict. The California juvenile system is mainly concerned with rehabilitation and giving young offenders a chance to change and better their lives. Punishing severe offenses could include detainment in a juvenile hall, where minors must attend school, join programs designed to rehabilitate them, and sometimes work. However, not all cases are heard and determined in a juvenile court. Occasionally a minor’s case could be transferred to an adult court for hearing and determination.

When a youth faces arrests on suspicion for committing a criminal offense, the police could detain and refer their case to a probation officer or release the offender with a stern warning. The police’s decision is based on the facts of the case. If the teenager is a habitual offender, and he/she has been arrested for a more severe offense, the police will refer the matter and the teenager to a probation officer. A probation officer is in charge of their case until a judge determines their case. In the case of a severe offense, the probation officer will refer the matter to a prosecutor, who opens a petition against the offender in a juvenile court.

A judge is required to set a hearing date for the minor’s case as soon as the DA files a petition against them. However, depending on the nature of the minor’s case, the judge could first call a transfer or fitness hearing to determine the minor’s fitness to have the case heard and resolved in a juvenile court. After the hearing, the judge rules that the juvenile is suitable for the juvenile justice system, the minor’s case will be determined in a juvenile court. If the judge sustains the petition against the offender, he/she will give a verdict, depending on the details of the case.

But if the judge finds the minor not fit for the juvenile system after the transfer hearing, he/she will order a transfer of the minor’s case to a criminal court, where the juvenile will face trial. When this happens, the minor will face prosecution and conviction like an adult offender.

As previously mentioned, most criminal matters involving juveniles are heard and concluded in a California juvenile justice court. However, things could be slightly different if the issue is severe, and the minor was a little older when they committed the said offense. It is advisable to have the guidance and support of an experienced criminal lawyer if your loved one is to appear in a juvenile court for a transfer hearing. Your attorney will ensure that your child’s best interests are considered for a more favorable outcome throughout the hearing.

Note that the judge makes most decisions regarding juvenile cases. The prosecutor cannot decide to charge and try a minor in a regular criminal court even when he/she feels that the offense committed by the minor was severe and goes beyond the juvenile judicial system. The judge always has the final say after the fitness hearing.

When your loved one is charged and tried in a regular court, they are likely to face a lengthy prison sentence in state prison, where he/she will spend the term with adult offenders. Adult prisons are not always good places for minors. That’s why you should fight alongside your attorney to ensure that the judge’s decision is favorable.

What Happens During a Transfer Hearing

As mentioned above, a transfer/fitness hearing is when a judge in a juvenile court decides whether a juvenile offender facing criminal charges is fit for the juvenile judicial system. The hearing is usually between the detention and adjudication hearings. A detention hearing is like the minor’s first appearance before a judge. The outcome of this hearing determines whether the minor will remain in custody pending the determination of their case or the judge will allow the juvenile to go back to his/her parents/guardian. An adjudication hearing is like a trial. The judge listens to the evidence presented in court and then decides whether the minor has violated the law.

Not all cases involving juvenile offenders go through a transfer hearing. The judge will only call for a transfer hearing if he/she feels that the issue is somewhat severe and might not fit the juvenile judicial system. That could happen if the minor is facing charges for a serious felony. The judge’s decision is guided by several factors, among them the gravity of the matter. If after the hearing the judge feels that the minor could benefit from rehabilitation provided through the juvenile justice system, he/she might proceed to hear and determine the case in a juvenile court.

Prosecutors and not judges initiate fitness hearings. After studying the details of a minor’s case, the DA might have enough reason to believe that the case could not fit the juvenile judicial system. Here are common tell-tale signs that could cause the prosecutor to initiate a fitness hearing for your loved one’s case:

  • Your loved one is sixteen years or younger and is on suspicion of committing a serious felony or any crime listed under the Welfare and Institutions Act 707(b)
  • Your loved one was fourteen or fifteen years old when they committed a crime listed under California WIC 707(b) but was not arrested until they were 18

Note that prosecutors cannot initiate fitness hearings unless in cases that involve crimes listed under the Welfare and Institutions Act 707(b).

If the DA has a good reason to doubt that a juvenile case is fit for the juvenile justice system, he/she will petition the judge to set a transfer hearing for the case. The prosecutor should give the judge a notice of at least five days before the fitness hearing.

During the trial, the judge will listen to the prosecutor’s reason for initiating the fitness hearing. The judge will also accept evidence from the defense team. Once both sides have made their final submissions, the judge will make his/her decision, which is usually final. The judge’s decision will be guided by:

  • The level of sophistication shown by the juvenile while committing the alleged offense
  • If the offender can benefit from rehabilitation before the end of juvenile court’s authority over the matter
  • The minor’s prior history of delinquency
  • How successful any previous attempts to reform the minor have been
  • The gravity and circumstances of the crime the minor is alleged to have committed

Example: Joe is 17 years old. He was recently arrested and is facing charges of rape. It is not Joe’s first time to face criminal charges. Joe is suspected to be a member of a criminal street gang conducting a series of robbery and kidnapping cases in his town. Two years ago, Joe was arrested alongside five other youngsters and faced robbery charges. Joe was sent on probation under the supervision of a probation officer. The officer’s report on Joe has never been good.

The DA has every reason to initiate a fitness hearing for the current charge to have Joe tried for rape in a criminal court. But the decision to transfer the case or not lies with the judge.

Types of Offenses For Which a Juvenile Can Face Trial in a  Criminal Court

The main factor of consideration for a juvenile court judge when determining the outcome of a fitness hearing is the nature of the underlying offense. California law provides a comprehensive list of crimes, if committed by a minor, must be tried in a criminal court. These offenses are listed under the California WIC 707(b). If your loved one is suspected of committing any crime under this statute, the DA might initiate a fitness hearing. If successful, the minor will face trial in a criminal court as opposed to a juvenile court.

Note that offenders who were fourteen or fifteen years old when they committed the crime might not have their cases referred to a criminal court except in cases where their arrest occurred after turning eighteen.

Here is a list of offenses listed under California WIC 707(b):

  • Murder
  • Attempted murder
  • Robbery
  • Arson on an occupied building or structure, or resulting in great bodily harm
  • Rape accomplished through violence, coercion, or threats of bodily injury
  • Sodomy through violence, coercion, or threats of physical harm
  • Lascivious/lewd acts on a child below fourteen accomplished through violence, coercion, or threats of bodily injury
  • Oral copulation by violence, coercion, or threats of physical harm
  • Kidnap for ransom
  • Forceful sexual penetration
  • Kidnap for robbery
  • Kidnap resulting in physical harm
  • Assault using a destructive device or firearm
  • Assault through force, possibly resulting in bodily harm
  • Discharging a gun in an inhabited or occupied space
  • California PC 1203.09 offense, committed against a person with a disability or elderly of 60 years or older
  • California PC 12022.5, whereby the minor used a gun or California PC 12022.53 for penalty enhancement
  • A felony whereby the offender personally used a weapon, as listed under California PC 16590(a)
  • Dissuading witnesses, as detailed under California PC 136.1, or bribing witnesses, as at California PC 137
  • Selling, manufacturing, or compounding at least ½ ounce of a solution or salt of a regulated drug, as detailed under California Health and Safety HS 11055(e)
  • A violence-related felony that would also involve a criminal gang penalty enhancement, as described under California PC 186.22(b)
  • Torture
  • Carjacking
  • Aggravated mayhem
  • Kidnapping in a carjacking
  • Kidnapping for sexual assault
  • Drive-by shooting, as detailed under California PC 26100
  • Escaping a juvenile home, camp, hall, forestry camp, or ranch through use of force or violence, resulting in bodily harm of a worker of that juvenile facility
  • Voluntary manslaughter
  • Exploding a dangerous or destructive device, intending to murder

Appealing a Judge’s Decision

The outcome of a fitness hearing is not always guaranteed. The judge could rule in favor or against your loved one. It is good to be prepared for any outcome. If the judge declares the minor fit to face trial in a juvenile court, you should now start preparing for the adjudication hearing. However, it could help to know that you can appeal the judge’s decision if your loved one loses in the fitness hearing. If that doesn’t happen in good time, your child’s case will be referred to a criminal court, whereby the judge will set a date when your loved one will face trial, like an adult.

If you or your loved one might want to challenge the outcome of a fitness hearing, you will file a petition within 20 days after the first court appearance on the same matter.

If your loved one is facing a serious offense, like a felony involving the use of a firearm, it could help to hire a competent criminal lawyer to help with their defense. Using a gun to commit a felony aggravates any offense into an offense listed under California WIC 707(b). When your child is under suspicion of committing any crime listed under that statute, the DA might directly file a charge against them in a criminal court or quickly initiate a fitness hearing.

It could be a challenge for the minor when that happens. If your loved one or the defense team cannot prove with substantial evidence that the juvenile belongs in a juvenile court, the minor could lose in the hearing.

Additionally, there’s usually no guarantee that the minor could win the petition. If the crime is severe, and the minor’s criminal record is wanting, you might lose in the second hearing. That automatically indicates that the minor could face trial like an adult offender in a criminal court. If the offender loses the trial, they could face harsh penalties, like a lengthy prison time and hefty penalties. However, all is never lost because there could be some benefits the minor could derive from that.

For instance, the California adult criminal justice system allows for a free trial, lacking in the juvenile judicial system. In a criminal court, your loved one will face trial in the presence of a jury, who will deliberate on the matter and conclude after listening to evidence from the prosecution and defense teams. Thus, there might be a possibility of the court not finding your loved one guilty of those charges, even in the presence of compelling evidence. Your criminal lawyer could use that chance to prepare a solid defense that could compel the court to drop or reduce the minor’s charges.

Additionally, juries in adult criminal courts are likely to be more considerate of minors than adult offenders. They could consider more than the evidence presented in court when making the final decision. Thus, your loved one could receive not-so severe penalties even after the court finding him/her guilty of their charges.

Minors are likely to receive a lighter penalty to even the severest offenses, especially when congested prisons are a concern. If the court feels that sending your loved one to jail or prison would not be for his/her best interests, they might quickly think of a more favorable sentence.

But trying a minor in a juvenile court gives them a second chance in life. It also provides the juvenile with the benefits of rehabilitation and behavior change, which could help the youth make better decisions in their adult life. That is different from what the adult criminal justice system offers in California. The latter is more about punishment than behavior change.

Find a Experienced Criminal Lawyer Near Me

Is your loved one facing a fitness hearing in Los Angeles, CA?

If so, you need to be well prepared for a favorable outcome. Hiring a competent criminal lawyer from the start of the juvenile justice process could help avoid the uncertainties of hearings like these. At Los Angeles Criminal Lawyer, we know how the California juvenile system works. Therefore, we could put up a good fight in defense of your loved one to have the case determined in a juvenile court where all juvenile offenders belong. Call us at 310-502-1314 for quality advice, guidance, and legal help.