Juvenile Crimes

While the purpose of the adult criminal justice system in Florida is to punish those who commit crimes, the purpose of the juvenile justice system is to protect society more effectively by attempting to rehabilitate, not just punish, children who commit crimes. Children in Florida are considered persons under 18 years of age. Juvenile courts in Florida work closely with law enforcement, prosecutors, defense attorneys and the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) in devising rehabilitation plans for children in trouble with the law. The goal of the juvenile justice system is to ensure that the child learns from his or her experience and returns to the community as a productive citizen without suffering permanent harm.

Children who enter the juvenile justice system have many of the same rights as an adult charged with a crime. You and your family should understand these rights. The following questions and answers will provide you with specific information if your child is arrested.

If your child is brought in for questioning, should he or she cooperate with law enforcement?

Yes and no. Generally, if your child is taken to the police station on suspicion that he or she has committed a crime, he or she should be cooperative with the police officers but should not answer any questions about particular offenses unless you are there to help. Police officers must attempt to notify the child's parent, guardian or legal custodian after taking a child into custody. However, Florida law permits police officers to question a child outside the presence of his or her parents. In deciding whether a confession will be admitted as evidence against the child, the judge assigned to the case will consider whether the child fully understood his or her constitutional rights at the time of questioning and whether the parents should have been present during questioning to advise the child.

Children do have the right to consult an attorney before making a statement or answering questions. However, if your child is charged with a major crime, like a very serious property offense or a crime against a person, for which he or she could be tried as an adult, or if your child is currently under any type of court supervision, you and your child should absolutely consult with a criminal defense attorney before speaking to the police and ideally have the criminal defense attorney with you and your child during questioning.

Your child can be taken to the county jail and held for up to six hours to be fingerprinted and photographed upon a reasonable belief that he or she has committed a crime. These records should be kept separately, are not available to the public, and should be destroyed at specific points in time or by court order. The police are then required to release your child to you or another responsible adult relative, or DJJ Intake for the purpose of releasing your child to you or detaining your child in a secure juvenile detention facility.

Can your child be put in jail?

No, unless your child has previously been tried and convicted in adult court, or is being transferred to adult court for the first time. If your child is held in jail, he or she must be separated from adult inmates by sight and sound.

Your child can be placed in "detention care" pending a court hearing. The DJJ Intake Counselor will determine if detention is necessary based on specific criteria. Detention may include "secure detention" (physical restriction in a DJJ detention facility), "non-secure detention" (placement in a physically nonrestrictive residential facility supervised by DJJ) or "home detention" (placement at home with DJJ supervision). If your child is detained, a reasonable effort must be made to notify you. A child may not be detained for more than 24 hours without a hearing before a judge to determine whether continued detention is appropriate. Once a child is placed into detention, an adjudicatory hearing (trial) must be held within 21 days. There is no right to a bail bond in juvenile proceedings.

What happens after the police charge your child?

Information concerning the charges will be furnished to the DJJ and to the State Attorney for review. A counselor from DJJ will contact you and your child and arrange a conference to discuss the charge and your child's background. Your child should refrain from answering questions about his or her involvement in the crime because the answers can be used your child in court in many instances. DJJ will make recommendations to the State Attorney concerning how to proceed against your child. These recommendations are advisory, however, because the State Attorney makes the final determination as to whether or not formal charges (a delinquency petition) will be filed against your child. If your child is charged with a minor offense, oftentimes your child will be diverted from the formal judicial process to programs designed to remedy the situation without the need for court action. You or your attorney should inquire about these programs.

Are all law violations by children handled in juvenile court?

No. If your child commits a violation of law pertaining to the operation of a motor vehicle, other than a felony traffic offense, the charges will be referred to the same court that handles traffic and motor vehicle offenses committed by adults. In limited circumstances, the State Attorney is permitted to transfer certain charges and certain children for prosecution in adult criminal court. A child, joined by his or her parents, has a right to demand to be tried as an adult. Some cases are also referred to other programs outside juvenile court for resolution, such as a community arbitration program or a diversion program.

Does your child have the right to be represented by an attorney?

Yes. Florida law provides your child the right to be represented by a defense attorney at all stages of any juvenile court proceeding. If the judge determines that you are able to afford your own attorney you are obligated to provide an attorney for your child. If you cannot afford your own attorney, the judge may appoint a public defender to represent your child. If a public defender is appointed, the court can assess a fee for the public defender's services against you as your child's parent or guardian. Any attorney is ethically obligated to represent the child's best interests not the parent's wishes.

Does your child really need an attorney in delinquency proceedings?

This is a question only your child, in consultation with you, can answer. Remember that your child's attorney only represents your child's best interests. Discussions between your child and his or her attorney are strictly confidential. The attorney will be as cooperative as possible with the parent(s), but the attorney cannot violate confidences between the attorney and your child.

If a delinquency petition is filed against your child, you should immediately consult with an attorney to determine whether there is a legal basis for the charge and the defenses available to your child. This is critically important when the State Attorney is seeking to prosecute your child in adult court.

Does your child have a right to a trial in juvenile court?

Yes and no. There is no constitutional right to be tried as a child merely because of age. A child may demand to be tried as an adult or may be transferred for prosecution as an adult under certain circumstances. If a delinquency petition is filed against your child and he or she pleads not guilty, a trial will be held before a juvenile court judge. If the child is prosecuted as an adult, the trial will be the same as any adult criminal proceeding.

What is a "treatment plan?"

Florida law provides that a child who has had a delinquency petition filed against him or her can make a contract with the judge to be placed voluntarily under the supervision of DCF without admitting guilt. The child gives up the right to a speedy trial and agrees to obey specific conditions. The judge promises that if the child complies with the conditions, the delinquency petition will be dismissed and the child's record will be wiped clean. If the child does not comply, the delinquency petition can be opened again. The child will need the help of an attorney and a DCF counselor to prepare the required documents. The treatment plan is an excellent way for a child to "pay for the crime," without having a record in juvenile court. The State Attorney must consent to the deferral of the prosecution.

What happens if your child is found guilty?

If your child pleads guilty or is found guilty, a date will be set by the judge for the dispositional phase of the delinquency proceeding to determine what should be done for your child. At the disposition hearing, the judge is required to consider a report prepared by DCF, which contains information on your child and his or her background. The court is required to discuss the offense with your child and give everyone present, including the victim, you, your child, your child's attorney, the State Attorney, the arresting officer, and representatives of DCF and your school system an opportunity to comment on the offense and an appropriate disposition. Many times a child is placed on probation, called community control, with specific conditions that the child must obey. For children charged with serious offenses or who have a record of serious offenses, commitment to DCF may be ordered. If your child is committed, your child is then placed in the custody of DCF. Commitment may be to a program in which your child still remains at home, or to a program in which your child is temporarily removed and placed in a residential facility.

A finding of guilt in a juvenile proceeding can later be used by the court in sentencing in adult court for subsequent criminal convictions under certain circumstances.

Do you have any liability for delinquent acts committed by your child?

You may. Florida law allows the juvenile court to order you to pay restitution to the victim up to $2,500 for each criminal episode in which your child is involved. In these cases, your liability is limited to the actual damages plus court costs. Additionally, the victim is permitted to sue you in civil court for damages suffered at the hands of your child. You may wish to consult with an attorney if it appears the victim may pursue a civil action against you to hold you financially liable for damages done by your child.

Are juvenile court records confidential?

Yes. Juvenile records should be kept separate and apart from other court records. Accessibility is limited to the child, his or her attorney and parents, DCF, law enforcement, some school personnel, and some correctional staff. They should never be accessible to the general public. Even the records of related agencies are not accessible without permission of the court. As with police records, there is also a provision for their destruction at specific points in time. Victims also have a right to the information and reports.

Does this mean the media cannot publish your child's name?

No. Juvenile court hearings are open to the public unless closed by the court. The press is free to publish any information gathered at a public hearing. Florida law also permits the police to release the name and address of a child 16 years of age or older who has been arrested for a felony.

If your child has been charged with any crime and is a juvenile, immediately contact me, former prosecutor Justin Caldarone, for a free consultation to protect your child's future, liberty and good name! Call 239-244-3242.