Florida’s Juvenile Justice System: A Primer as to How it All Works

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15th Sep 2016

Here is a general outline as to how the South Florida/Broward County/Miami-Dade County Juvenile System works

1. Initial Proceedings

If your child is suspected to have engaged in criminal conduct, the police can and will interview him or her without your knowledge or consent. If your child is arrested in Broward or Miami-Dade County, he or she will initially be taken to a Juvenile Assessment Center (JAC).

At the JAC, your child is booked and fingerprinted and his or her criminal history, if any, will be determined. A preliminary decision will then be made by JAC personnel as to whether to place your child in secure detention (which is essentially “jail”) by the calculation of “detention points” by the intake officer. The detention calculation is made on a document called a “Risk Assessment Instrument” (RAI). If your child scores 12 or more points on the RAI, he or she likely will be referred to secure detention at the Broward or Miami-Dade “Juvenile Detention Center . Generally, if your child is taken into custody on a third degree felony charge involving violence or any higher degree of felony, he or she will be detained and transported from the JAC to the JDC.

As more fully discussed below, within 24 hours after admission to the JDC, your child will appear in court for a detention hearing. If the judge continues your child’s detention status, his/her length of stay may extend up to 21 days or more. Juvenile detention in Florida is a short-term temporary program. Juvenile offenders requiring long-term sanctions and/or rehabilitation are placed into non-residential or residential treatment programs.

If your child scores less than 12 points on the RAI, he or she may be released to you or other appropriate family members with no limitations or restrictions on their activities, or your child may be required to participate in a home detention plan whereby they must stay at home under adult supervision except to attend work or school. The charge of domestic battery, however, is an exception to the 12 points rule. If your child has struck or injured you or other household members, they may be held in secure detention for up to 48 hours without having to score 12 points on the RAI. This is to permit a “cooling off” period and an opportunity, if necessary, for you to arrange alternative placement of your child in a shelter or with other family members or friends if you feel you would be in danger of harm were your child to return home. Any violation of your child’s home detention rules may cause your child to be re-arrested and placed in secure detention at the JDC.

Within 24 hours of his or her arrest, your child will appear before a judge for a Detention Hearing. The purpose of this Detention Hearing is for the judge to review the Probable Cause Affidavit (PCA), which is the victim’s or arresting officer’s sworn statement describing how your child allegedly broke the law, to review the RAI to make sure your child’s detention points were correctly calculated, and to review the placement options. The judge may maintain or modify the JAC’s preliminary detention decision to include secure detention at the JDC, home detention (house arrest), release to parents or other responsible adults without restrictions, or require certain conditions for release of your child, such as curfews and random drug tests.

In the event you are unable to retain private counsel to attend the Detention Hearing, a lawyer with the Office of the Public Defender will be present to represent your child for the limited purposes of the Detention Hearing. An Assistant State Attorney also will attend the Detention Hearing to represent the interests of the State of Florida.

The Office of the State Attorney for the Eleventh (Miami-Dade) or Seventeenth (Broward) are responsible for filing formal charges against juvenile offenders. They will file their charges within several days after your child’s arrest. The charges for which your child was arrested may not be the same charges brought when the State Attorney’s Office files their formal charges with the court. In many cases, the State Attorney may drop, change or add charges as it deems proper after it investigates and completes its review of your child’s case. The decision to charge is exclusively vested in the State Attorney. The court has no role whatsoever in what, if any, formal charges are filed against your child.

The State Attorney will file its formal charges against your child via a document called a “Delinquency Petition.” This document will be provided to you and/or your child and will inform you of the allegations against your child. A summons will also be provided to you ordering your child to come to court for a hearing known as the “arraignment” when your child will be required to enter his or her plea to the State Attorney’s formal charges contained in the Delinquency Petition.

If this is the first time your child has been arrested and your child is charged with a non-violent crime, the State Attorney’s Office may, in its sole discretion, offer your child the opportunity to participate in a diversion program. The State Attorney, not the court, solely will determine your child’s eligibility for these programs. If your child is enrolled in, and successfully completes, a diversion program their charges will be dismissed and they will avoid a juvenile court record. Conversely, if your child fails successfully to complete diversion I, he or she will return to court for further proceedings. The prosecutor typically decides whether to exercise his or her discretion to offer your child diversion at or before your child’s arraignment. It is thus imperative that you secure a capable and experienced South Florida/Miami-Dade County/Broward County juvenile criminal attorney early in your child’s case so your child’s lawyer has the best chance to persuade the prosecutor that your child’s case is appropriate for diversion.

If your child has a substantial criminal history, or is viewed as dangerous, the State Attorney may charge them as an adult instead of as a juvenile. When this happens it is called a “direct filing.” If the prosecutor direct files the case, your child will lose the benefits of the Juvenile Court and will be treated in all respects like an adult. In such a case the charging document is called an “Information” instead of a Delinquency Petition. Also, if your child is subject to a direct filing he or she will be transferred from the JDC to the county jail. Depending on the charge, they may or may not be allowed to post a bond. If convicted, your child may then be sentenced to state prison or county jail.

2. Arraignment and Pleas

The Arraignment is the court date your child formally is advised of the charges against him or her as specified in the Delinquency Petition and is required to enter a plea to the Delinquency Petition. You are also required to be present for this hearing. There are three types of pleas: Guilty, No Contest, and Not Guilty. Each of these will be discussed in turn.

The plea of “Guilty” admits the charges. It says your child is willing to accept the consequences of his or her behavior. The plea of “No Contest” means your child chooses not to contest the charges, and that they believe the state can prove its case against him or her beyond a reasonable doubt. It has the same legal effect as a guilty plea.

If your child enters a Guilty or No Contest plea he or she will be given two dates. One is for your family to meet with a representative of the Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) to discuss an appropriate disposition of the case, and one is a date to return to the court for disposition (sentencing). The disposition date is usually about 30 days after the arraignment. Some cases can also be disposed of at the time of the plea.

The appointment with DJJ will result in the preparation of a Pre-Disposition Report (PDR), which gives background information to the judge about your child, his or her attitude about the offense, and it also makes a recommendation for sanctions. You will be advised of the recommended disposition prior to the disposition date. The judge has the right to accept or reject the DJJ recommendation. Your input and comments will be solicited before the disposition is imposed by the judge.

A plea of “Not Guilty” denies the charges against your child. It means a trial will be scheduled to determine your child’s guilt. Unlike adult criminal cases where there is trial by jury, trials in Juvenile Court are by heard solely by the judge. Both you and your child must be present if your child’s case proceeds to trial.

If your child is facing charges in juvenile court, he or she has the following important rights:

1. The right to trial by a judge;
2. The right to an attorney; if the child and his family cannot afford an attorney the court will appoint one at the state’s expense;
3. The right to have the state prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt;
4. The right to see and hear the case against them;
5. The right to call their own witnesses and to question opposing witnesses;
6. The right to force witnesses on their side to come to court;
7. The right not to be forced to tell their side of the case. If a child decides not to testify and to remain silent, the silence will not be held against him.

Before your child is permitted to enter a Guilty or No Contest plea, they will be questioned by the judge to ensure they appreciate what they are doing. They will be asked to sign written forms waiving the rights listed above, and you will be asked to comment on whether you believe your child understands the process.

3. Disposition (Sentencing) Options

For children who enter a Guilty or No contest plea, and for those found guilty after a trial, the court has a number of disposition options. The disposition usually occurs after DJJ has had a chance to meet with the child and his family, and to prepare a Pre-Disposition Report (PDR).

Most children who come before the juvenile court judge will be placed on probation. This means the child will be assigned a Juvenile Probation Officer (JPO) and required to fulfill a number of requirements. There are many types of sanctions. The following are examples of some of things the court may order:

1. That the child attend school full time with no unexcused absences or suspensions.
2. That the child avoid contact with certain persons, including peers, who are considered to be a bad influence;
3. That the child participate in individual or family counseling;
4. That the child submit to random urinalysis to check for illegal drug or alcohol use;
5. That the child obey a curfew, the hours of which will be set by the court;
6. That the child not change his or her residence without permission of the probation officer;
7. That the child perform community service work;
8. That the child (and his family) make restitution to victims for any property damage or personal injury;
9. In the case of any drug offense, state law requires the court to suspend the child’s driver’s license privilege.
10. That the child obey the lawful demands of the parent or guardian.

Probation is designed to allow children an opportunity to prove they are trustworthy. Those that do well, follow the rules, and stay out of trouble may qualify for early termination of their supervision. Children who have more law violations or who are unwilling to complete their probation sanctions may be subject to a Violation of Probation (VOP). This can result in additional sanctions or to commitment to a more intensive residential program supervised by DJJ.

When a child fails to perform one or more conditions of probation, instead of filing a VOP, the probation officer may ask the court to issue an Order to Show Cause, which seeks to find the young person in contempt of court. If found guilty of contempt of court, on a first offense the court may sentence the youth to a maximum of five days in secure detention. Fifteen days in secure detention is permitted for the second and any subsequent offenses. For any contempt, the court also has the option of commitment to a residential facility for up to six months. Again, secure detention is to be used only when there are no other reasonable alternative sanctions available which will be effective to correct the child’s behavior.

Children found to be delinquent for committing serious violations of the law or those who fail to successfully complete probation will be considered for stricter supervision. These youthful offenders may be sentenced to one of the following commitment levels. All programs, except for low risk, are residential programs where the child is removed from the home and placed in a state run or state supervised facility. The moderate, high, and maximum risk levels, are reserved for the children with more serious offenses, law violation histories, or simply are not making the necessary changes while in the community.

When children are released from these programs, they usually are then on a period of Post-Commitment Probation. If they continue to violate the law or the rules of their probation or release, they may be returned to another commitment program. In some cases, jurisdiction of juvenile court may continue until the child’s nineteenth birthday, and up to a usual maximum of the twenty-second birthday in other cases.

4. Juvenile Court Adjudicatory Hearings (Trials)

Children who plead Not Guilty will return to court for trial. Florida Rules of Juvenile Procedure require the State Attorney to reveal the evidence against the child upon the request of the defense attorney. Once the state is asked to show its evidence, the defense is required to do likewise. The disclosing of information about the case by both sides is called the discovery process.

At the conclusion of the trial, which is also called an adjudicatory hearing, the court will find the child either guilty or not guilty of committing a delinquent act. If found guilty, the court may order the child held in secure detention pending disposition provided the child meets detention criteria.

Between the time the child is found guilty and the sentencing or disposition date, the Department of Juvenile Justice will interview the child and his parents and a Pre-Disposition Report (PDR) will be prepared. At the sentencing hearing the court will consider the PDR, comments from the child and the parents as well as comments from the victim, and will impose the disposition it finds appropriate.

Victims of delinquent acts are encouraged to come forward at the disposition hearing for the purpose of telling the child their feelings about what the child has done. For some children this can be a constructive experience. The child has thirty days in which to file an appeal to the Disposition Order.

5. Restitution ( for money owed) Hearings

As part of their disposition, children (as well as their parents) may be ordered by the court to make restitution payments to citizens who have suffered personal injury or property damage at the hands of a delinquent child. If the amount is not agreed upon at disposition, the child has a right to a restitution hearing, at which time the amount owed will be determined by the court. At this hearing the victim will be present as well as other witnesses whose testimony may be needed to establish the amount to be paid.

At restitution hearings the duty to pay has already been established. The only questions remaining are the amount and the payment schedule. For this reason, at the restitution hearing the child is not allowed to claim he or she has no liability for the victim’s loss.

Restitution orders entered by a judge are enforceable by contempt of court procedures against the child and/or the parents. Non-payment can also result in a Violation of Probation and the imposition of enhanced punishment.

All restitution payments are made to the Clerk of Court. To insure proper credit, payments should include the child’s name, the victim’s name and the case number.

The above demonstrates the vital importance of having an experienced South Florida Miami-Dade County/ Broward County criminal defense attorney who has an expertise in the defense of juveniles . It offers the accused a distinct advantage when addressing the allegations