Juvenile charges in the State of Florida differ from adult charges in many ways. For one, children under the age of 18 who are found guilty after a trial, or who plea guilty, are not convicted as an adult, rather they are adjudicated delinquent. Delinquent children are also not punished in the same fashion as adults, in that they cannot be sent to jail or prison. But, just because the child is under 18 does not meant that the child cannot be charged and sentenced as an adult, rather than as a delinquent child. The State often "direct files" a child into adult court, usually because of the seriousness of the crime alleged or because of the child's prior criminal history.
ARREST - The child, when accused of a crime, may be arrested or given a notice to appear (NTA). If the child is arrested, the child will be taken to the juvenile detention center. There an assessment will be made and the child may be released to the parent/guardian or the child may be held to await a determination on release from a judge. If the child is held to see the judge, within 24 hours the judge must make a determination to release the child, and on what conditions, or to hold the child. In any case, the child may not be held in detention longer than 21 days (or 30 days in very few cases) awaiting trial. If not arrested, but given a notice to appear, the child will be given or mailed the court dates.
CHARGES - The State's Attorney will decide whether to file charges, called a petition, or not to. If a petition is filed, the State has 90 days from the date of the arrest to bring the child to trial.
ARRAIGNMENT - Once the petition has been filed, the child must appear before the judge for arraignment. The child should have hired an attorney by the time of arraignment. At arraignment the child may plead not guilty, guilty, or no contest. An attorney may be appointed for the child if the child has no attorney at the time. If the child pleads not guilty, a trial date will be set and the child must return at that time with an attorney, if the child doesn't already have one. If the child pleads guilty or no contest, it is not likely the child will be immediately sentenced. Rather, an assessment (pre-disposition report) will be made to determine what the Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) recommends for a proper sentence.
DIVERSION - At arraignment or sometime before trial, the child may be offered a diversion program. This is rarely offered to anyone other than first time offenders and for minor crimes. There are several different programs. Some deal with children with drug problems, while others deal mostly with the nature of the alleged charges. The requirements may include participation in a drug or anger management program, community service, a letter of apology, or other requirements. If the child successfully completes the diversion program, the charges will be dismissed. If the program is not successfully completed, the charges will be re-initiated and the child is back at the same place as at arraignment.
PLEAS - A child may change the plea at any time to guilty or no contest and avoid a trial.
TRIAL - A trial in juvenile court is much different than in felony. Though the presumption of innocence remains, and the State must still prove the allegations beyond a reasonable doubt, no jury makes the decision on guilt. Instead, the judge is the jury also and must be convinced beyond a reasonable doubt of the child's guilt in order to convict the child. Witnesses and evidence are still required to be presented by the State and can be challenged and cross-examined by the child. The child can present witnesses in the child's own behalf. The child can remain silent or testify.
DISPOSTION - If the child pleas or is found guilty after a trial, the court holds a "disposition hearing." At the hearing, the judge hears evidence from both sides and reviews the DJJ recommendation before deciding what the proper sentence is. The judge can give everything from a "judicial warning," to probation until the 19th or, rarely, 21st birthday, or to a DJJ commitment program, depending upon the facts and circumstances of the crime. In any case, jurisdiction terminates after the child's 19th birthday or, rarely, 21st birthday. There are currently four different levels of commitment programs - (1) low risk programs that last from 30-45 days; (2) moderate risk programs that last from 4-6 months; (3) high risk programs that last from 6-9 months; and (4) juvenile prison programs that last from 18-36 months.