Thursday, December 30, 2010

Juvenile Convictions - More Trouble Than You Think

Juvenile cases are no joke. Many people scoff at the idea that anything serious will result from juvenile charges because they simply do not know the reality of the juvenile court system. Charges a child receives can and will follow him into adulthood. Perhaps the most important thing to note about juvenile court is the consequences a juvenile conviction poses. Many participants are under the impression that a juvenile conviction has no meaning and that it won’t “count” as an adult. This is a huge misconception. Under Florida Statute 921.0021, “Juvenile dispositions of offenses committed by the offender within 5 years before the primary offense are included in the offender’s prior record when the offense would have been a crime had the offender been an adult rather than a juvenile.” This means that juvenile convictions can count on an adult score sheet, which ultimately means that an 18 year old could score prison time on a first time adult offense.

When little Johnny is charged with battery after a neighborhood fight, he may get only a slap on the wrist, do some community service hours with the Boys and Girls Club, and have to write an apology letter. Everyone will jokingly say “boys will be boys!” and the whole incident will soon be forgotten. Then, when that same Johnny gets into a bar fight as an adult, those conviction points from his juvenile case could very well help land him in prison. On a first adult conviction. Better yet, on an adult conviction that, without the juvenile points, would likely have been resolved with probation. The old maxim that “boys will be boys” is no longer as endearing as it once seemed.

Juvenile Court handles the criminal cases of people who are arrested when they are under the age of 18. Juvenile Court is similar to “Adult Court” in many notable ways: minors who are tried in juvenile court have the right to an attorney, to remain silent, to confront witnesses and cross-examine witness testimony, to call witnesses, and to not incriminate themselves. Despite the similarities, it is important to understand that juvenile court is still separate from the adult court system and has different procedures and policies. The main difference: there is no right to a jury trial in the juvenile court; everything is held before a juvenile court judge. And, while juvenile cases generally result in rehabilitative treatment instead of incarceration, the court could detain a juvenile in a detention center for 21 or 30 days without bail in the case of a serious crime.

An important thing to note is that there is no guarantee that a person under the age of 18 will be sent to juvenile court. In fact, if the individual is close to the age of 18, has been charged with a violent crime, or is considered a "repeat offender," he may be tried as an adult in the regular criminal system and could face the same penalties as an adult.

Now it is easy to see why juvenile court cases should be taken just as seriously as adult cases. This is why minors should never speak to the police or authorities without legal counsel, or at least parents, present. Not only can what they say be used against them in court, but often, minors do not even realize what they are saying is incriminating. Parents seem to think that it's helpful to talk with the authorities, but it is important to remember that law enforcement officers are not usually a minor’s friends. Classroom lectures and after-school specials on TV would have youngsters believe that police officers are their best friends and that they should always talk to them because it’s the “right thing to do.” Wrong. Officers are there to do their job, which is to get evidence for their case, the outcome of which could affect that minor for the rest of his life. An adult would never talk to an officer about a pending criminal investigation without legal representation – and neither should a child.

11 year old Sallie is trying to break up a fight between two of her friends. She admits to the officer that she pushed someone in the process. Now she is charged with Battery. Did she technically do anything wrong by trying to break up the fight? No. But she did just get herself into trouble by explaining what she thought was a harmless scenario to an officer she wrongly believed would understand her side of the story.

This is not to say that honesty isn’t the best policy, as we all preach to our children from a young age. This is to say that silence is golden. A minor may think that he is “doing the right thing” or “helping” by talking to the police, but 9 times out of 10, he is only digging his hole deeper. He’s giving the police the evidence they need to arrest him, and usually he doesn’t even know it.

A lot of parents seem to want to “teach a lesson” to their children who have gotten into criminal trouble by telling the police to take them to jail. While this is an honorable, and certainly understandable, response to the situation, it really does more harm than good. “Let him sit there overnight and think about what he did,” is often the parent’s response. Or, even worse, “Timmy – you had better tell the officer the truth about what you did!” Maybe Tiny Tim will learn his lesson by being punished that way, but then later on in life when he gets a DUI or holds weed for a friend or is in trouble for carrying a knife that he didn’t realize was concealed, that childhood night in jail and forced admission will come back to haunt him.

Parents – do your kids a favor and don’t get them into trouble criminally. Ground them. Lecture them. Make them clean the house or run suicide sprints like a basketball coach. Embarrass them by supervising all of their dates. But don’t force them to talk to the police without a lawyer, and don’t make them sit in jail over night if you can help it. Juvenile convictions can have much larger effects than are immediately apparent and can be crucial later on in life.

The motto of the Juvenile Justice System is to "increase public safety by reducing juvenile delinquency through effective prevention, intervention and treatment services that strengthen families and turn around the lives of troubled youth." Rehabilitation and prevention are often used in place of punishment, and the sentences in juvenile court are generally “soft.” Minors who have stolen from others, or physically harmed someone, or even possessed drugs are often sentenced to community service hours and letters of apology instead of the incarceration they would be facing if they had committed the same crime after the age of 18. Although this means that juveniles often get what is viewed as a mere slap on the wrist, like little Johnny or Tiny Tim initially did above, juvenile court also gives young adults the opportunity to change their behavior and habits that they would not get if they were sent to adult court. They get a second, and often third, chance to straighten up. And if they do not, if they keep their bad behavior and continue to get into trouble, it will catch up to them.

One final important note: Police Officers can lie to juveniles. They can say anything they want and hold whatever a juvenile says against him, even if the juvenile’s parents or attorney were not present. Officers do not have to inform minors that they have a right to have their parents present; juveniles have to request to have their parents present, and they always should.

If you know a minor who is facing the juvenile justice system alone, have them contact a qualified attorney.

Legal Disclaimer: This information is not intended to create, and receipt or viewing of this information does not constitute an attorney-client relationship nor is it intended to be legal advice for any individual case or situation. You should consult an attorney regarding your individual case.

Copyright (c) 2010, Law Office of Roger P. Foley

The Law Offices of Roger P. Foley,P.A.

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