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The Criminal Justice Process

The criminal justice system can seem complex to those who are unfamiliar with it. To aid in your understanding, we've described here for you.

When a child under the age of 17 commits a delinquent act (a crime, if committed by an adult) or an unruly act (runaway, truancy, curfew, etc.,) a complaint is filed in the Juvenile Court. A police officer, parent or private citizen can file a complaint, which is the equivalent of an adult arrest warrant. When the complaint is filed, a Juvenile Court intake officer decides whether or not to detain the youth based on circumstances related to the law.

If the case is a misdemeanor, or involves an unruly act, and is the child's first offense, the Court typically handles the case informally and the child is not required to appear before a Judge. However, a Judge has final approval of all agreements between the defense lawyer and prosecutor. There are several ways to handle a case informally:

  • Conferencing: All parties involved meet under the guidance of a trained, unbiased facilitator to reach an agreement satisfactory to all parties.
  • Informal Adjustment: A court officer gives the child certain conditions to abide by for a specific period of time and if all conditions are met, the case is withdrawn.

If the case is not handled informally, the District Attorney's Office reviews the complaint, police reports and witness statements and files a petition. Once a petition is filed, the Court schedules an arraignment hearing where the child learns about the exact charges against him/her and what his or her constitutional rights are. The child appears before a Judge and enters a formal plea to the charges (guilty or not guilty).

If the child denies the charge(s) at arraignment, the Court schedules an Adjudicatory hearing (the equivalent to an adult trial). Witnesses and victims are subpoenaed to appear for the adjudication. Their testimony is very important to the case because it can convey the impact of a crime on an individual or a community. Victim Assistance Advocates, from the District Attorney’s Office are available to support and encourage victims before and after their testimony. Juvenile Court has a separate waiting room for victims.

After all the testimony and evidence is presented, the Judge either adjudicates the juvenile as a delinquent (the adult equivalent of conviction) or dismisses the petition (the adult equivalent of an acquittal).

If the child admits guilt at the arraignment or is adjudicated delinquent, then the hearing transitions into a Dispositional hearing (the adult equivalent to sentencing) and the Judge pronounces the sentence and order of the Court.

Dispositions can include:

  • Probation with general and specific conditions;
  • Commitment to a DJJ program or detention facility;
  • Making restitution payments to the victim;
  • Performing community service hours;
  • Paying supervision fees;
  • Suspension of driving privileges;
  • Restorative group conferencing; and
  • Other outcomes deemed appropriate by the Judge.

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