California offers a range of protections for juvenile offenders. These protections seek to move the state’s juvenile justice system closer to rehabilitating young offenders instead of punishing them. In return, they save more youths from brushing shoulders with the justice system and instead focus on family ties and crime prevention rather than imprisonment. One of the most groundbreaking bills ever passed is Senate Bill 439. It seeks to protect children under 12 years by keeping them out of the justice system, including juvenile courts. Such kids are too young to have motive, leave alone understand the consequences of their conduct. Their delinquent acts are better off resolved through counseling, rehabilitation, or placement outside their home. If your child has been arrested, we invite you to reach out to the Orange County Criminal Lawyer. We have an in-depth understanding of the law and have the right skills to defend the rights and best interests of your little one.

Numerous bills have been proposed or passed, including Senate Bill (SB) 190, which eliminates the court and administrative fees allied with processing juvenile offenders. SB 394 prohibits sentencing minors for life without parole, and SB 395 gives minors the right to seek legal counsel before surrendering any legal rights. Let us help you maximize these laws and reduce the risk of your child being subjected to a punitive justice system.

What is Senate Bill 439, and What Does it Do?

September 30th, 2018, is the historic day when Governor Jerry Brown officially signed Senate Bill 439 into law. Senator Holly J. Mitchell wrote this bill, and it fought to establish 12 years as the minimum age for prosecuting minors in a California juvenile court. This strips the juvenile court system of jurisdiction for children below this age. This is unless they commit serious crimes such as:

  • Rape
  • Murder
  • Forcible oral copulation, sodomy, or sexual penetration

California is one of the national leaders in setting a minimum age law that is in line with international human rights standards. Thanks to the passing of SB 439, counties no longer had the power to process kids under 12 years, effective January 1, 2019.

Families and even school staff are now encouraged to deal with minor offenses like vandalism and neighborhood fights using age-appropriate consequences that promote learning, reconciliation, and growth. When a child’s behaviors are seen to require advanced corrective means, counties can seek appropriate support from existing agencies and programs, including child welfare systems, behavioral health programs, or community-based organizations.

Following intensive research and testimonials from youths, now adults who suffered from early-age prosecution, it was evident that a change of law is crucial. For this reason, numerous organizations came out to support the passing of SB 439.

Some of the co-sponsors of the bill who devoted themselves to raising awareness of the effects of early-age involvement in the justice system include:

  • The Anti-Recidivism Coalition
  • The Youth Justice Coalition
  • The W. Haywood Burns Institute
  • The National Center for Youth Law
  • The Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice
  • The Children’s Defense Fund – California

SB 439 is a significant win for legislative leaders, youth justice advocates, and more so for hundreds of families and children across the state. Passing the Bill showed that California acknowledges the developmental vulnerabilities of kids’ unnecessary involvement in the justice system.

Vital Clarifications about Senate Bill 439

  • Minors under 12 cannot be charged or prosecuted unless they are involved in grave crimes such as murder or forcible rape.
  • The juvenile court has no jurisdiction over minors younger than 12 years who commit delinquent acts. Youths under this age can hence not be detained or arrested.

According to SB 439, California’s juvenile court system only has jurisdiction over a minor when:

  • They are older than 12 years but younger than 18 years
  • They violate federal or state laws or municipal ordinances.

The juvenile court system has jurisdiction over minors under 12 who commit crimes like rape, murder, sodomy, and sexual penetration. However, the courts can only oversee punishment for these crimes when they are committed by use of:

  • Violence
  • Force
  • Menace
  • Duress
  • The threat of bodily harm

While the juvenile court system has jurisdiction for violent crimes committed by minors under 12, Senate Bill 439 still requires them to consider the “least restrictive” options to early-age involvement in the justice system. The bill doesn’t point out who is responsible for availing these options, although it states that they could be offered by health, school, or community-based services.

Laws Before Senate Bill 439

Senate Bill 439 has meaningfully changed the juvenile court system’s jurisdiction under California laws. Before the passing of this bill, the juvenile court system enjoyed jurisdiction over all delinquent minors below the age of the majority (18).

Like 22 other states in the U.S. that generalize minors as persons below 18 years, California had no minimum age that restricted courts from hearing a case. This meant that a kid of any age could be arraigned in a California juvenile court and prosecuted.

According to scientific research, there are grave consequences allied with early-age involvement with the justice system. First, both scientific research and the United States Supreme Court agree that kids are fundamentally less culpable than adults. It is also harder to engage them meaningfully with the justice system, making punitive measures less likely to bear the intended fruit.

More importantly, early-age involvement with the justice system is known to have long-standing health and psychological effects on children. Getting arrested, handcuffed, and brought before a judge is too traumatic for a child. Such trauma can increase the probability of a child’s involvement in future criminal conduct.

From a more rational perspective, it is better to deal with underlying issues that are often to blame for juvenile delinquency. This may include unaddressed behavioral conduct, environmental conditions, learning problems, trauma, or maltreatment. It is possible to protect a minor from negative consequences and potential stigmas and still effectively address these concerns through viable alternatives to the justice system.

The Reasoning behind Senate Bill 439

There are three main reasons why California advocates for the protection of children below the age of 12. These reasons include:

  • Early-age involvement in the justice system does irreparable harm to the educational and developmental aspects of a child.
  • Scientific research suggests that early-age involvement in the justice system increases the likelihood of growing into a chronic or career offender.
  • Processing a child through the justice system is, in most cases, a waste of government resources and taxpayers’ money because the minor’s brain is yet to grow to the point of understanding the magnitude of an offense.

The Constitutional Rights for Juvenile Offenders Following the Passing of SB 439

In the 1960’s juvenile offenders only enjoyed limited legal rights. Today, they have more rights because juvenile court proceedings are considered formal in the U.S. While delinquent minors still don’t have equal rights to adult offenders, most rights are similar.

These rights include:

The Right Not To Be Searched or Arrested Without Probable Cause

The police have no business searching or arresting your child if they lack probable cause. There must be reasonable grounds or a rational justification for law enforcement officers to believe that your child has committed a crime or violated the law. Without probable cause, any evidence gathered during a search or interrogations cannot be used in court.

It is crucial to note that public officials in quasi-parental relationships with your kid, such as teachers or other school staff, can legally conduct a search based on a hunch. For instance, a teacher can search your child if he/she suspects mischief. Depending on the threat posed, your kid could be legally detained.

The Right to One Phone Call

If your child is arrested or detained, he/she has a right to make one phone call. They could opt to contact you or to talk to their lawyer. If the police do not uphold this right, any form of evidence gathered during interrogation cannot be used in court.

The Right to Be Notified Of Their Charges

Even minors have a right to be informed about the charges they face. This allows them to convey as much information once they make a phone call to their parent, guardian, or attorney.

A Right to Legal Counsel

One of the most valuable rights your child has is the right to legal counsel. Having a lawyer by their side could make all the big difference in how they are charged and the outcome of juvenile court proceedings. If a child cannot afford to hire a private attorney, the law requires the courts to appoint one for them (a public defender).

A Right Not To Self-Incriminate

Like adults, children accused of delinquent conduct have a right not to self-incriminate. The state bears the burden of proof, and the 5th amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects minors from making statements or confessions that incriminate them.

The Right to Cross-Examine/ Interrogate Witnesses

Even though adjudication hearings are not formal, the laws give minors the constitutional right to cross-examine or interrogate witnesses testifying against them. They can challenge their testimonies with the help of their attorneys and actively play a role in having their charges dropped or reduced.

Children don’t have a right to:

Trial by Jury

If your child is accused of committing a crime and faces adjudication or incarceration, he or she is entitled to free and fair juvenile court proceedings. This involves the state proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. If a case doesn’t include incarceration or adjudication, the state must provide a preponderance of the evidence against your child. Trial by jury is not an option the juvenile court system can consider.


Your child is unfortunately not entitled to bail. In some cases, minors have to be detained in juvenile halls as they await their court dates. However, most of them are allowed to go home before the arraignment.

Steps Involved in California’s Juvenile Justice System

Thanks to the passing of SB 439, Juvenile court systems in California only have jurisdiction for minors between 12 and 18— unless in exceptional circumstances. The below steps outline the typical journey through California’s juvenile court proceedings:

Step 1—Arrest and Processing

Following an arrest, a minor is processed at the police department and either dismissed or taken through a diversion program that doesn’t involve going through the juvenile justice system. If the charges against a minor are concrete, the authorities will consider the facts tabled and decide whether to release the child to his/her parents until the next court action or detain them in the juvenile court.

Step 2 —Detention Hearing or Arraignment

At this phase of the process, a minor may opt to exercise the right to legal counsel. You may opt to hire a lawyer for your child or have one appointed by the court. The detention hearing or the arraignment is the first hearing in the juvenile court.

Several things may happen during the proceeding. They include.

  • The minor will be released from detention unless there is sufficient evidence for a prima facie case.
  • The courts will read the petition against the minor (charges), and he or she can admit or deny the allegations.
  • The courts will decide whether to have the minor released, placed under home supervision, or detained in the juvenile hall until the adjudication of a case.

Transfer Motions

Depending on the crime committed and the available evidence, the courts may decide to send the case of a minor (under the age of 18) to the adult court system. This is known as a “transfer.”

Unfortunately, not even Senate Bill 439 offers relief for youths from being prosecuted as adults. The laws state that juvenile offenders above 16 years can be charged in adult courts for crimes under WIC 707(b). They include:

  • Kidnapping
  • Rape
  • Robbery
  • Carjacking
  • Aggravated mayhem
  • Forcible rape, etc.

During the hearing, a judge will consider a range of factors to determine whether a minor is fit for the juvenile or the adult court system. These factors include:

  • Criminal record history
  • The magnitude of an offense and level of criminal sophistication exhibited
  • The success rate of past rehabilitation attempts
  • Degree of harm or injury inflicted on victims

Adjudication Hearing (Trial)

Juvenile cases in California are tried in front of a judge. No jury is involved; hence the judge is responsible for making a ruling based on the available evidence.

Before the adjudication hearing, a minor may admit some or all the allegations in a petition. To do this, your child must waive their right to:

  • Trial
  • Cross-examine witnesses
  • Self-incrimination

In some cases, admission of guilt would result in a “deferred entry of judgment.” This is where the judge dismisses the charges once a minor completes a service program. If the minor does not perform satisfactorily during the program, the case may proceed to disposition.

Disposition Hearing

In the juvenile justice system, the sentencing hearing is known as the disposition hearing. Here is what could happen during the hearing:

  • A petition may be dismissed if a minor is not seen to require treatment or rehabilitation.
  • A minor is declared a ward of the court.
  • A minor is released on probation.
  • A minor is placed under non-wardship probation.
  • A minor is placed into institutional custody.

Understanding the Sentencing Options for Juvenile Cases after the Passing of SB 349

When a child is arrested for a crime, the prosecution can consider the available evidence and choose to dismiss the charges or file a petition. The petition is addressed to the juvenile court, requesting it to review the case. Upon reviewing the petition, a judge will decide whether to deny or sustain it.

If the petition is sustained, your child may be subjected to disposition options which include:

Deferred Entry of Judgment (DEJ)

Deferred entry of judgment is a form of juvenile probation option where a juvenile offender must accept the allegations listed in the petition. In return, the judge will defer (postpone) judgment and sentencing as the minor goes on probation.

If probation is completed successfully, the judge may dismiss the case. Some of the common probation conditions include:

  • Unplanned drug and alcohol tests
  • Random searches (no warrant required)
  • Curfew restrictions
  • Mandatory school attendance
  • Restitution

Probation can last for 1—3 years and is often an option considered when dealing with non-violent offenses such as trespass or shoplifting.


Under WIC 654, a minor may benefit from a diversion program and avoid involvement in the juvenile justice system. The program may include:

  • Enrollment in an education or treatment program for a maximum of 6 months
  • Placement in a community facility for up to 3 months

If the diversion program is successfully completed, the case may be dismissed.

Formal Probation

A minor can serve formal probation from home, camp, a relative’s house, or a group home. Some of the common conditions that govern formal probation include:

  • Mandatory school attendance
  • Curfew restrictions
  • Community service
  • Avoidance of specific people or areas
  • Graffiti removal
  • Mandatory enrollment in drug or alcohol counseling

If a minor is placed in a juvenile camp, the rehabilitative service may include enrollment in short-term counseling and vocational training programs.

Commitment to the Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ)

A judge may find a DJJ commitment disposition fit if a minor:

  • Commits an offense listed under WIC 707(b)
  • Commits a serious felony
  • Commits a crime that requires sex offender registration

Informal Probation

Another disposition option a judge may consider is informal sentencing under WIC 654 and 725. This form of probation runs for a maximum of 6—months, and it may include:

Mandatory enrollment in a drug and alcohol counseling or treatment program

  • Adhering to strict curfew rules
  • Mandatory school attendance
  • Paying restitution to the victim(S)

Just like deferred entry of judgment, informal probation is only available for juvenile offenders accused of committing non-violent crimes such as trespass and vandalism. If a child adheres to all probation terms and completes the program, the case may be dismissed.

5 Compelling Reasons to Hire a Juvenile Delinquency Attorney

In California, the minimum age for prosecuting children is 12, unless under exceptional circumstances. The juvenile court system has jurisdiction over kids between the age of 12 and 18 years. If your child is arrested and charged for non-violent crimes such as theft, vandalism, and public mischief or even serious violent crimes like murder and sexual assault, there are compelling reasons why you may want to have a skilled juvenile delinquency attorney on their side.

These reasons include:

Your Child Needs To Understand Their Rights

Children often have no idea about their rights. Even after being arrested, they may not know what to do and how to protect their charges from going from bad to worse. A lawyer can educate your child about his/her constitutional rights and generally prevent self-incrimination or the use of illegally obtained evidence.

The Stakes Are High During the Disposition Hearing

During the disposition hearing, the judge will consider the facts of a case and rule whether a petition should be sustained or dismissed. If the plea is maintained, the judge will decide which punitive measures best suit the offense committed. A skilled attorney can build a solid defense that influences the court’s decision positively during disposition.

Juvenile Cases Are Processed Quickly

Compared to adult court cases, juvenile cases move quicker. The idea is to return juvenile offenders to normal living and school within the shortest time possible. You need an experienced lawyer who can keep pace with the hearings and implement a winning defense strategy.

The Courts Don’t Automatically Seal Juvenile Criminal Records

One of the common misconceptions is that the courts automatically seal records of crimes committed before 18 years. This cannot be further from the truth. Even though the law and the courts seek to protect kids from stigma by making their criminal records inaccessible to schools, law enforcement, and employers, the sealing is only superficial.

If you want to have the criminal records of your child permanently sealed, you must take additional legal action. Your attorney will advise you about the appropriate waiting period depending on the offense committed. The expert will then petition the court for permanent juvenile criminal record sealing.

Minors Can Be Tried In Adult Courts

If your child is above the age of 16, the courts could opt to have him/her tried in an adult court. A competent attorney may help prevent this by developing a solid defense strategy. When it comes to dealing with the justice system, it is better to be safe than sorry.

Find an Orange County Criminal Lawyer Near Me

Nothing can be more devastating to a parent than learning that your child has been arrested for a crime. Children’s minds are not mature enough to comprehend the consequences of their conduct, and even good kids sometimes do “stupid” things. Fortunately, California understands the downsides of imposing extreme punitive measures for conduct stemming from poor judgment. However, not even the passing of Senate Bill 439 gets your child completely off the loop, especially for serious crimes or behavioral issues. That is why you must immediately reach out to us at the Orange County Criminal Lawyer after your child is arrested. Don’t allow one misjudgment to ruin your child’s future. Call us now at 714-262-4833 and let us use the law to advocate for the rights and best interests of your little one.