Will My Child Be Tried as a Juvenile or an Adult?

Parents understand that children make mistakes, but having a child who has been arrested and charged with a crime can create tremendous stress and concern about their future. This is especially true when a minor under the age of 18 has been accused of a crime for which they can be charged as an adult. When juvenile cases are transferred to adult court, the prospect of serious penalties, imprisonment, and a future of limitations make the stakes in these cases incredibly high.

At Lessem, Newstat & Tooson, LLP, our criminal defense attorneys have helped many minors and their families following juvenile crime charges, including those where prosecutors sought transfers of cases to adult court. While all cases are different, and the unique facts important to how a case may progress, there are a number of circumstances established by law as to when a minor can or cannot be charged as a juvenile.

  • 14 Years of age – Prosecutors have discretion when determining whether a minor who is at least 14 years of age should be charged as an adult. This discretion is based on the unique factors involved, including the nature of the alleged crime and the prior criminal history of the minor. California law prohibits minors under 14 years old from being charged as adults.
  • Procedures for trying minors as adults – There are several procedural ways a minor can be charged as an adult: (1) a prosecutor files for a fitness hearing in juvenile court, which determines their “fitness” for rehabilitation and whether the case should be transferred to adult court. (2) Charges are directly filed in adult criminal court, based on the discretion of the prosecutor. (3) Minors over 14 are automatically tried as adults based on allegations involving serious aggravating offenses.
  • Section 707(b) offenses – Fitness hearings to determine whether a juvenile case can be transferred to adult court can occur when minors 14 or older commit any number of serious offenses. These include murder, robbery, certain serious sex crimes, kidnapping, and assault with a firearm, among others.
  • Direct file – There are some cases when prosecutors can direct file against a minor in adult court without petitioning first for a fitness hearing. This can be the case for minors 16 and older who have committed a Section 707(b) offense, or have a prior felony involving a hate crime, gang crime, or crime involving an elderly or vulnerable victim. Direct file may be used in cases involving minors 14 or older who committed crimes punishable by life in prison or death, used a firearm in the commission of a felony, or committed a Section 707(b) offense involving prior convictions, gang crimes, hate crimes, or elderly or vulnerable victims.
  • Mandatory adult cases – California law stipulates when minors 14 or older must be tried in adult court. These include cases involving murder with special circumstances (the minor allegedly killed the victim personally), and various violent sex crimes involving extenuating circumstances, such as rape by force, lewd or lascivious acts on a child under 14 by force, and others.

Minors who face the prospect of adult criminal charges require proven and experienced defense in order to avoid the life-altering penalties at stake. Even when cases should seemingly be handled in juvenile courts, the discretion prosecutors have in these cases should make any parent intent on working with lawyers who have the resources and insight to guide them through the legal journey ahead and pursue to most favorable outcome possible. If you wish to discuss a potential case, contact us for a FREE consultation.