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Sometimes we speak to clients who are emotionally distraught because their minor child has been arrested. This can be a very upsetting situation for both the parent and the child, and we do our best to help them through this difficult time. The attorneys at Apfelbaum Law may be able to assist you with criminal matters involving your child or any other criminal matter.

When a person younger than 18 is charged with a crime in Florida, it is usually handled by the Juvenile Justice System. However, there are some situations where a juvenile may be tried as an adult. Often these cases are directly filed with the adult court in situations where the juvenile has been a repeat offender and has committed a very serious crime.

The Juvenile Justice System, unlike the adult court system, focuses on rehabilitating juveniles instead of punishing them. The goal is to get them back on the right track, and avoid future incidents. Unfortunately, in some situations, they can have considerable consequences for both the child and the parent. Experienced legal guidance is very important if your minor child has been charged with a crime, and our Florida criminal defense attorney may be able to assist you.

The stages of the Juvenile Justice System are different than the adult system. Cases usually travel through the juvenile system much faster. 

Arrest, Release, and Detention

After a juvenile is taken into custody, law enforcement takes the child to the Juvenile Assessment Center (JAC). At that point, a Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) counselor will create a risk assessment report to determine if the child meets the criteria for secure detention. If not, the child may be released to their parent/guardian for non-secure detention, and have daily supervision from a DJJ counselor.

If the child fails to follow the rules of non-secure detention, they may be returned to the detention center, so it’s very important that your child follow the guidelines if they have been allowed non-secure detention.

Detention Hearing

In situations where the juvenile is held overnight, a detention hearing has to be held within 24 hours of the arrest. At that time, a judge decides whether to release the juvenile and, if so, what conditions are necessary to protect the community and the public. For example, an ankle monitor may be required, or the juvenile may not be able to leave their home except to attend school, etc., and there may also be a curfew.

If the Judge doesn’t release the juvenile, they can stay in the juvenile detention center, usually for a period of no more than 21 days. Under very limited circumstances, this may be stretched to a period of 30 days.

Intake

Between the time of the child’s arrest and the next court date, the state attorney will go over the facts of the case and decide what charges, if any, will be filed against the juvenile. If they believe there is enough evidence, the attorney then files a delinquency petition describing the charges against the juvenile.

Arraignment

A few weeks after the arrest, the juvenile will appear for arraignment. In this hearing, the minor child is informed of the charges filed by the State and asked to enter a plea to those charges—Guilty, Not Guilty, or No Contest. It is very important to have secured an experienced criminal law attorney by this point in the process. Your child’s case will likely be scheduled for trial within a month of the arraignment. Parents are expected to appear at the arraignment and other Court hearings.

Discovery

Discovery is the process where the state’s attorneys and your child’s attorney exchange information and evidence. During this discovery period any witness, including the victim, may be subpoenaed to give a sworn statement under oath to the defense attorney about their knowledge of the case. The state attorney is also required to give the defense any reports, documents, or recordings they have.

Pretrial Diversion Programs

In some cases, first time juvenile offenders may be able to participate in a pretrial diversion program. Each program is different, but they all require the child to follow certain rules and complete certain sanctions. These may include community service, restitution, counseling, a letter of apology, etc. If the program is completed, the petition will be dropped. However, if the child doesn’t complete the requirements of the program, the charges are reactivated and prosecution pursued.

Plea Negotiations

The juvenile offender may change a plea of denial of the petition at any time. Often, the State Attorney and defense will discuss how to resolve a case without a trial. If a juvenile changes its plea to Admit or No Contest, there is no trial and the court proceeds to sentencing. You and your child’s attorney should discuss the options before deciding if this is the right choice. In some cases, especially if the charges are minor and the punishment is expected to be mild, this may be a good option. Even so, it’s important you and your child understand the ramifications of such a plea.

Trial

If an agreement isn’t reached, then the case will go to a hearing before the Judge. Juvenile Court trials don’t have juries—a Judge presides and is the finder of fact, and makes determinations. The State has the burden of proving “beyond and to the exclusion of every reasonable doubt” that the juvenile committed a delinquent act. The juvenile is not required to prove anything. Witnesses, including the victim, may be subpoenaed to testify and be cross-examined by the defense.

The Verdict

After both attorneys make their final arguments, the Judge determines whether the child has committed a delinquent act; and if found to have committed such act, the Judge may order DJJ to produce a predisposition report recommending sanctions for the juvenile.

Pre-Disposition Reports

A predisposition report is an inquiry into the background, criminal history, and family circumstances of the juvenile. This document is compiled by DJJ and distributed to the Judge, the defense attorney, the defendant, and the Assistant State Attorney. It includes a sentencing recommendation for the judge to review. While the judge may order DJJ to complete a predisposition report, they are not required or completed in all cases.

Dispositional Hearings

After a defendant has been found delinquent or enters a plea, a dispositional hearing or sentencing hearing will be set. The judge will sentence a juvenile in a manner appropriate to the crime, with consideration for other circumstances related to the case. The Juvenile Court has jurisdiction over the defendant until their 19th birthday—or, under some unusual circumstances, to age 21.

The Judge may impose two types of sentences:

  1. Probation: If the judge chooses probation, they will probably impose community service, a letter of apology, counseling, etc.
  2. Commitment: If the judge commits to DJJ, the juvenile will be committed to a level that is appropriate for their crime. There are currently four different levels of commitment:
    1. Low risk programs that last from 30-45 days,
    2. Moderate risk programs that last from 4-6 months,
    3. High risk programs that last from 6-9 months, and
    4. Juvenile prison that lasts from 18-36 months.

In many cases, a skilled Florida criminal law attorney may be able to help get your child’s charges reduced, or seek a lighter sentence. Contacting an attorney as soon as possible after your child’s arrest is the best first step in assisting them with this challenge.

If you need assistance with your juvenile case, or have questions about any potential legal matter, please contact Apfelbaum Law for a consultation. We have offices in Port St. Lucie and Stuart, but provide legal services throughout the Treasure Coast and Florida.