Juvenile and Youthful Offenders: Sentencing Options

August 30, 2010

As part of my criminal defense practice, I often represent juveniles and young adults who have been charged with criminal offenses. Since there is confusion and much bad information out there regarding the possible consequences of a criminal charge in juvenile and adult court, my first duty is often to sit down with the parents and family of the client and explain the various sentencing options and ramifications faced by their child.

The juvenile justice system normally has jurisdiction over crimes committed by children until they reach their 18th birthday. Unknown to most people is the fact that the juvenile system is not technically “criminal” at all, but rather civil in nature. Should a child be prosecuted in Juvenile Court, the State Attorney and Judge have a number of available options to resolve a pending case, assuming that there are no viable defenses to the charge.

In cases involving first offenders charged with non-violent crimes, the SAO will usually permit the child to enter into a “Diversion” program, under which specific terms and conditions are placed upon the child to complete, such as community service, restitution and counseling. If the terms are successfully completed, the prosecution is terminated by the State.

If diversion is not offered or not completed successfully, the Court can sentence the child to probation, or in cases where a child appears to need a more restrictive environment, can commit the offender to a residential program. The seriousness of the crime and the prior record of the child will determine the type of facility and the length of the commitment.

While Juvenile Court is the usual forum for crimes committed by children, the State Attorney has the option to transfer the prosecution of children between 14 and 15 years old to Adult Court with permission of the Juvenile Court Judge, and 16 and 17 year olds without the necessity of such permission.

Upon transfer to Adult Court, most sentencing options are controlled by Chapter 958 of the Florida Statutes, entitled the “Florida Youthful Offender Act”. This statute also applies to adult offenders between the ages of 18 to 21 and provides the Court with greater flexibility than the sentencing guidelines system otherwise imposed in the adult system. While the Judge in Adult Court also has the option to in effect “sentence back” the defendant to Juvenile Court and impose juvenile sanctions, this is rarely done, since in most cases those sanctions have already been exhausted.

The Youthful Offender Act permits the Judge to sentence the defendant to any combination of probation, community control and/or incarceration which does not exceed 6 years. The jail portion of the sentence cannot be greater than 4 years. This flexibility, (and restriction) can benefit the youthful offender in many ways.

First of all, the Court can disregard any required minimum prison sentence recommended by the Florida Sentencing Guidelines which, depending on the crime charged and prior record of the client, could greatly exceed 4 years. Secondly, the numerous minimum mandatory prison sentences contained within the Florida Criminal Code can be disregarded. These include mandatory prison sentences for drug trafficking, DUI manslaughter and the more recent “10-20-Life” Rule involving the use of firearms in the commission of felonies.

The key to obtaining a favorable outcome when children and young adults face criminal charges is to thoroughly investigate the circumstance of the offense, determine if the prosecution has sufficient evidence to establish guilt, and if so, provide the necessary input to both the client and the Court to fashion a sentence which satisfies the requirement for punishment and the need for rehabilitation.

At the Heyman Law Firm we have the experience on both sides of the issues at hand to assist the client and his or her family to understand the available options and successfully guide them through both the juvenile and adult criminal justice systems.