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In most cases, when a minor is accused of committing a crime in California the minor is adjudicated within the juvenile delinquency system. However, in serious cases, the law allows (and sometimes requires) the minor be tried as an adult in adult criminal court.
A minor tried in adult court faces the prospect of a lengthy sentence in adult prison with adult offenders. At worst, a minor adjudicated within the juvenile system faces commitment to the California Youth Authority until the age of 25.
If the prosecutor wants to charge a minor as an adult, whether or not the minor can remain in juvenile court comes down to what a judge decides during the minor’s fitness hearing. A fitness hearing is a legal proceeding where a juvenile court judge decides whether a minor who has been accused of violating a criminal law is “fit” for the juvenile court system. The judge will look at five factors, including the seriousness of the alleged crime, to determine whether the minor is likely to benefit from the rehabilitative services of juvenile delinquency court. If the judge decides that the minor is “fit” for the juvenile system, the minor stays in juvenile court. If the judge decides that the minor won’t benefit from those services, the minor gets transferred to adult court.
Another way a juvenile can be prosecuted as an adult is dependent on the severity of the alleged crime. Under Proposition 21, prosecutors have the discretion to charge a juvenile as an adult if a serious crime was allegedly committed. The law says the minor must be tried in adult court in cases of murder with special circumstances, if the prosecutor alleges that the minor personally killed the victim. Additionally, in the following sex offenses, if the prosecutor alleges that the minor personally committed the offense and other extenuating circumstances: rape with force, violence or threat of great bodily harm; spousal rape with force; violence or threat of great bodily harm; forcible sex in concert with another; lewd and lascivious acts on a child under 14 with force, violence or threat of great bodily injury; forcible sexual penetration, sodomy or oral copulation by force, violence or threat of great bodily injury.
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