Fitness Hearings in Juvenile Court
In most cases, crimes committed by minors are adjudicated in the juvenile delinquency courts, which are separate from adult criminal courts. The courts are intended to be more rehabilitative than punitive and the goal is to provide the minor with the resources and education necessary to avoid future criminal offenses. However, for certain serious offenses, minors can be tried in adult criminal courts and face the same criminal penalties as an adult. In order to determine whether it is appropriate to send a juvenile offender to adult court, a judge in juvenile court will hold a “fitness hearing.”When Can a Fitness Hearing be Initiated?
A fitness hearing is initiated by a prosecutor in juvenile court and is heard by a juvenile court judge in order to determine whether a juvenile would be “fit” for the juvenile justice system. A fitness hearing can be initiated when the minor is 16 or older and is accused of committing any felony offense, when the minor is 16 or older and has a previous juvenile court record of two felony offenses and where the minor is over the age of 14 and is accused of committing one of the offenses listed in California Welfare and Institutions Code Section 707(b), in which case the juvenile is presumed unfit for juvenile court. These offenses include murder, arson, robbery, rape, kidnapping, assault with a firearm, assault with force likely to produce great bodily injury, carjacking and many other crimes.
In considering the minor’s fitness for juvenile court, the judge will consider the degree of criminal sophistication shown by the minor, whether or not the minor can be rehabilitated in juvenile court, the juvenile’s prior delinquency history, success of previous attempts to rehabilitate the minor and the circumstances and gravity of the current offense. If the minor can prove by a preponderance of the evidence that he or she is a good fit juvenile court, the matter will remain with the juvenile court judge. If not, the case will be transferred to adult court.
Where a minor is deemed not to be fit for juvenile court, the minor can request that the prosecutor present a prima facie case that he or she committed the current felony charged. The prosecutor must show probable cause exists that minor has violated the law.
If the Juvenile Court determines that the minor is unfit and the case is transferred to adult court, the minor has 20 days to file a writ petition challenging the determination.Direct Filings Against Minors
There are certain situations where a prosecutor can directly file criminal charges against a minor in adult court. For minors 16 or older, direct files are permissible when the minor has a prior felony and is accused of committing a felony offense where the victim is 65 or older or disabled, where the felony is a hate crime or where the felony is gang-related.
For minors 14 and older, direct files are allowed where the minor is accused of committing a crime punishable for adults by life imprisonment or the death penalty, where the minor is alleged to have personally used a firearm during the commission of a felony and where the minor committed one of the offenses listed in California Welfare and Institutions Code Section 707(b) WIC and the minor has committed a previous 707(b) offense, the crime was gang-related, the crime is a hate crime or the victim was elderly or disabled.