Juvenile Court

Juvenile Court in Montgomery County and Bucks County

What is a delinquent act?

A delinquent act is an act that would be considered a crime if committed by an adult. Any person charged with murder, however, no matter how young, will be charged as an adult in Pennsylvania. Summary offenses, such as underage drinking or disorderly conduct, are not heard in juvenile court. They are heard by magisterial district justices or, in Philadelphia, by Municipal Court Judges. The failure to pay a fine after conviction for a summary offense may be considered a delinquent act.

The following crimes may be heard in adult court if the youth charged was 15 years or older at the time of the offense, and a deadly weapon was used, or if the juvenile was previously adjudicated delinquent for one of these offenses

  • rape
  • involuntary deviate sexual intercourse
  • aggravated assault
  • robbery
  • robbery of a motor vehicle
  • aggravated indecent assault
  • kidnapping
  • voluntary manslaughter
  • attempt, conspiracy, or solicitation to commit the above crimes

What does it mean to be a delinquent child?

A delinquent child is a child 10 years of age or older whom the court has found to have committed a delinquent act and to be in need of treatment, supervision or rehabilitation. There is a key defense here, announced in a case decided by the Pennsylvania Superior Court on November 2, 2015 (In The Interest of TLB), that a juvenile who is no longer in need of treatment, supervision or rehabilitation cannot be adjudicated delinquent. In that case a juvenile who touched the sexual organs of two very young children had already been successfully treated and therefore could not be adjudicated delinquent (the equivalent of being convicted in adult court).

When may a child be taken into police custody?

According to the laws of arrest, which require that arrest warrants are issued only upon a finding of probable cause supported by one or more affidavits or a properly sworn complaint.  There are certain exceptions that can allow the police to arrest without a warrant, primarily in cases where there is an exigency.  You should consult with a criminal defense attorney familiar with practice in Montgomery County, Bucks County, or other area where the case is.

A child can also be taken into custody for violating probation or a Court Order.

The parent, guardian, or custodian of the minor should be notified “with all reasonable speed” about the whereabouts of the child taken into custody and be given a written statement of the reason for taking the child into custody.

Arrest & Detention

Juvenile cases may be commenced by an arrest or by filing a Petition alleging delinquency.  The juvenile probation department may choose to “divert” less serious, first-offender cases from court and have the individuals placed on an informal adjustment or consent decree.  These programs are similar to ARD and may result in a period of probation, community service, supervision, etc. but they do not result in an adjudication of delinquency (the juvenile court version of a conviction) if the child successfully completes the program.

If the juvenile is detained, a detention hearing must occur within 72 hours at which the juvenile must be represented by counsel.  If the juvenile is not detained, the first meeting with an attorney is often at the initial court appearance. That is not because there is no role for counsel earlier in the process. In fact, early intervention by lawyers, to investigate the charges, provide legal advice, and explore alternatives to secure detention, may have significant impact on the entire course of the case. Getting arrested can be frightening, especially if children are detained. By the time youth meet their attorneys, they may have been questioned by many adults, including police officers, probation officers, or family members. A youth may view additional adult questioning with distrust. Thus, at the start of a case, lawyers must make an extra effort to build a relationship with their clients. Counsel must take the time to explain that their job is to help their clients defend against the charges. In addition to asking for information, it is vital that counsel take the time to discuss with clients what is likely to happen in court.

Detention Hearing

If a youth is detained, counsel’s first opportunity to question removal of the juvenile will be at the detention hearing, where the allegations must be presented by the Commonwealth in juvenile court and proven by probable cause. Effective representation and advocacy at this stage of the proceedings has a significant influence on the ultimate disposition of the case. Juveniles who are securely detained prior to adjudication-rather than released to parents or placed in community-based program-are much more likely to be incarcerated at disposition than youth who have not been detained, regardless of the charges against them. Thus, it is vital that defense attorneys contest secure detention and explore less restrictive alternatives as early as possible.

May a juvenile be fingerprinted or photographed after arrest?

Yes. Police may fingerprint or photograph a juvenile, age 10 or older, who has been arrested for an offense that would be a misdemeanor or felony if committed by an adult. If the juvenile is found not guilty, the fingerprints or photographs must be destroyed immediately.

May a juvenile be kept in a juvenile detention center until a detention hearing?

Yes, but only if one or more of the following conditions exist:

Confinement is required to protect the person or property of another or the child.

There is reason to believe that the juvenile will run away or be removed from the jurisdiction.

There is no parent, guardian or custodian to care for or supervise the juvenile.

If none of the above conditions exist, the juvenile may not be held.

What happens when a child is detained?

A petition must be presented to the court within 24 hours or on the next court business day after a child has been admitted to a detention center or to shelter care and a detention hearing must be held within 72 hours.

What is decided at the detention hearing?

The detention hearing is an informal hearing at which the court will determine:

If there is probable cause to believe that the child has committed the delinquent act(s) with which he or she is charged, and

Whether the child should remain in detention, shelter care or under some other pretrial supervision until the adjudicatory hearing (trial)

Where may juveniles be detained before trial?

If detained before trial, the child may be placed in a variety of settings, including a secure detention center, a foster home, or any other appropriate placement approved by the court. A shelter placement is usually “unlocked.” Children may also be released before trial, subject to certain conditions or restraints, such as electronic monitoring, intense supervision, and in-home detention. The conditions of confinement for a juvenile are limited by the following restrictions:

A juvenile can only be securely detained at a police station for up to six hours after arrest. Being held securely includes confinement in a locked room or cell, or cuffing to a rail or stationary object

A juvenile cannot be held securely in a facility which also houses an adult lockup unless:

The holding is for the purpose of identification, investigation, and transfer, AND

The child is separated “by sight and sound” from incarcerated adult offenders, in which case the child must be under the under the continuous visual supervision of law enforcement officials or staff

A juvenile cannot be held in non-secure custody in a facility which also houses an adult lockup unless all of the following conditions are met:

The area in which the child is held is an unlocked multipurpose room that is not part of a secure detention facility

The child is not physically secured on a cuffing rail or stationary object during the period of custody

The area is designated for the purpose of identification, investigation, or processing

The child is under the continuous visual supervision of a law enforcement officer or employee of the facility

A juvenile cannot be placed in a facility in which he or she is likely to be abused by other children

A juvenile can only be placed in a jail or other adult facility if being tried as an adult

In Philadelphia County only: According to a court decree, no juvenile may be detained in secure detention prior to the detention hearing except for one or more of the reasons for detention listed above. The court must state in writing the specific reason secure detention is permitted and why alternatives to secure detention were rejected. No juvenile who has been committed, voluntarily or involuntarily, under the Mental Health Procedures Act may be held in secure detention.

How is the juvenile court process started?

To start the process, a petition must be filed with the court. A petition can be brought by any person, including a law enforcement officer. The petition must state:

The child’s name, age, and address
The names and addresses of the parents, if known
When and where the child was taken into custody
If the child is still in custody

The petition must clearly say why the child is being brought before the court and state that it is in the best interests of the child and the public that the child receives treatment, supervision, or rehabilitation.

If the child is not released after arrest a petition must be filed with the court within 24 hours or the next business day after the child is brought to detention or shelter care.

What is an adjudicatory hearing?

An adjudicatory hearing is like a trial to determine whether the juvenile committed the offense(s) with which he or she is charged. The judge will hear evidence from witnesses presented by the prosecution and the defense attorney who is representing the juvenile. After listening to this testimony the judge must decide whether the prosecution has proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the juvenile committed the acts with which he is charged. If, at that hearing, the judge decides that the child committed the act(s), he or she must also decide whether the child is in need of treatment, supervision, or rehabilitation. This decision must be made within 20 days if the child is in detention. If the judge decides that the child is not in need of treatment, supervision, or rehabilitation the proceedings will be dismissed. However, children who have been adjudicated delinquent for acts classified as felonies are presumed to be in need of treatment, supervision, or rehabilitation.

When does an adjudicatory hearing take place?

If the child is being held in secure detention or shelter care, an adjudicatory hearing must be held no later than ten (10) days after the initial petition (which must be filed within 24 four hours of taking the child in custody) was filed.

There are some exceptions to this 10-day rule. The judge may order that a child be detained for an additional ten days for one of the following reasons:

The judge has reasonable grounds to believe that presently unavailable material evidence will be available at a later date and every effort has been made to obtain that evidence

The judge finds by clear and convincing evidence that, without an order of detention, the child’s life or the community’s safety would be endangered, or that the child would run away or be removed from the jurisdiction

The child or the child’s counsel delays putting on the case because persons are unavailable or requests for continuances become necessary.

What is a disposition hearing?

A disposition hearing is like a sentencing hearing. If a child is found delinquent by the court, at disposition the judge must determine what type of treatment, supervision, or rehabilitation is appropriate for the child and order these services or placements. The court’s disposition must pay “balanced attention” to “the protection of the community, the imposition of accountability for offenses committed and development of competencies to enable children to become responsible and productive members of the community.” Disposition should, therefore, seek to benefit both the child and community.

A disposition hearing can occur on the same day as the adjudication or at a later time. If the child is in detention, however, the hearing must occur within 20 days of the adjudication.   At the disposition, the judge has a great deal of flexibility. The judge can order the child to any number of different plans or programs best suited to the child’s treatment, supervision, rehabilitation and welfare. The court is, however, limited by the restriction that a juvenile cannot be placed in an institution meant primarily for adult offenders unless the child is convicted as an adult.

Examples of dispositions include:

Allowing the child to remain with parents, guardians, or other custodian and requiring that the child meet certain conditions, such as attending school or counseling.

Placing the child on probation or in a community-based placement (like a group home).

Sending a child who is over 12 years-old to a Youth Development Center, Youth Forestry Camp, or another institution operated by the Department of Public Welfare.

Requiring a child to make payments of a reasonable amount of money as fines, costs, or restitution as part of a program of rehabilitation. Amounts due would be determined by taking into account the charged offense and the earning capacity of the child.

Ordering payment of a fine, acceptable to the victim, not in excess of the actual damage, and paid for from earnings the child received through participation in a constructive program of service or education, as a condition of probation.

How long can a juvenile’s court disposition last?

A child may be committed to an institution or kept under probation or supervision only as long as is necessary to provide treatment or rehabilitation services. A child may be placed in an institution for a maximum period of either four years or the amount of time that an adult would receive if convicted of the same offense, whichever is shorter.  In no event can the child be confined beyond the child’s 21st birthday.  This creates a very difficult situation for someone who committed a crime while a juvenile but was not caught until after the age of 21.  These individuals are prosecuted in adult court and adult mandatory minimum sentences apply.  I know of several cases where juveniles committed crimes for which they may have only been detained briefly in a juvenile detention facility, but because they weren’t caught until they were older than 21 they were sentenced to 5-10 years in a state correctional institution and will likely serve close to the 10 year maximum sentence.

The juvenile court must review each commitment or disposition every six months, and conduct a disposition review hearing every nine months. The judge may alter the original disposition at a review hearing if it is decided that a change would best meet the treatment goals of the child.

Can the court order a child’s parent or guardian to participate in a disposition?

Yes. A parent, guardian or custodian of the child can be ordered by the court to participate in the treatment, rehabilitation, or supervision of the child. A parent can be found in contempt of court if he or she does not comply with the court ordered participation and a bench warrant could be issued for his or her arrest.

Can parents be held responsible for reimbursements ordered as part of disposition?

Yes. When a child is ordered to reimburse the person who suffered injury as a result of the child’s “tortious act,” the child’s parent or guardian is ultimately held responsible for the repayment. A tortious act is something that causes injury to property or to people. If a parent fails to comply with this order of the court, a civil action can be filed against the parents to recover the money owed to the victim. The monetary limit for liability is $1,000 for injuries suffered by one person and $2,500 for more than one person, regardless of the number of persons suffering injury from a child’s tortious act or series of acts.

Can a juvenile be transferred to a less restrictive placement before the initial disposition has been completed?

An institution in which a child has been placed may seek to transfer the child to a less secure facility such as a group or foster home. If the transfer is from a secure facility, the institution or facility must make a written request for a transfer to the court and to the attorney for the state. If no objections are made to the request within 10 days of its receipt by the court, the child may be transferred. If, instead, there are objections to the transfer, a hearing must be held within 20 days of the objection to reevaluate the disposition.

Can a juvenile appeal a court’s decision?

Yes. The child may appeal the court’s delinquency adjudication and/or the disposition order. No appeals can be filed prior to final disposition. All appeals must be filed with the Superior Court of Pennsylvania within 30 days after the final disposition hearing.

Is the juvenile court closed to the public?

In most cases juvenile court proceedings are only open to the parties involved in the alleged incident. Those parties include: the child; attorneys and witnesses for the defense and prosecution; persons accompanying the child for assistance; the victim, counsel for the victim and persons accompanying the victim for assistance; and any other persons that the court finds have a proper interest in the case.

The general public, however, will not be excluded from juvenile court hearings under the following circumstances:

The delinquency petition concerns a child 14 years or older who has been accused of conduct that would be considered a felony if committed by an adult.

The delinquency petition concerns a child 12 years or older who has been accused of one of the following offenses:

  • murder
  • voluntary manslaughter
  • aggravated assault
  • arson
  • involuntary deviate sexual intercourse
  • kidnapping
  • rape
  • robbery
  • robbery of a motor vehicle
  • attempt or conspiracy to commit any of the above offenses

In any of the above circumstances, however, the child and district attorney can agree that the proceedings should not be opened to the public.

Are juvenile records automatically erased (expunged)?

No. A person must petition the court if he or she wants their juvenile records erased; otherwise the records will remain on file permanently.  Such records often come up when the child is later arrested as an adult for another crime.

Records may be expunged upon court order under any one of the following circumstances:

The original delinquency petition was dismissed or not proven true.

Six months have passed following the successful completion of the terms of a consent decree.

Five years have passed since the child has been discharged from the court’s supervision and no other charges have been filed or are pending.

In addition, the court may order expungement, with the agreement of the district attorney, if the child is 18 or older. To make this decision, the court must weigh the following factors:

  • The type of offense
  • The age and criminal/juvenile history

The adverse consequences to the child if the records are not expunged (such as the inability to enter an educational/vocational program or the military)  Whether public safety demands that the records be maintained

There are different rules for expungement of underage drinking cases or other summary offenses.  You should call our office for a detailed explanation of your particular situation.

Can a juvenile by charged and tried in adult court?

Yes, on more serious offenses  a juvenile may be charged as an adult, or if originally charged as a juvenile, may be transferred to adult court.  A good criminal defense attorney in Montgomery County or Bucks County will file a Petition to Decertify the case to juvenile court.  I have had cases where the first lawyer hired was from Philadelphia and assumed that the Philadelphia procedures for automatically obtaining a decertification hearing would apply in Montgomery County, which is not the case.   My clients were ultimately transferred to juvenile court and got short-term treatment in a juvenile facility rather than the five year mandatory minimum sentence for armed robbery in adult court that they very nearly got under the watch of the previous attorney.  An attorney well-versed in juvenile criminal offenses in Montgomery County or Bucks County can make all the difference.