On this first day of Autumn, we wanted to share a little story of growth and redemption. A while back, a mother of a 15 year old boy had come into our office totally beside herself. She said that her son had been arrested the week before by the police for a stealing a car, and had been placed into juvenile detention.
She wanted to hire us to provide the best defense for her son. We took his case and within a year we were able to get the charge dismissed through the use of a uniquely juvenile concept – the deferred disposition.
Before we get to that though, a small primer on juvenile court. Criminal cases in juvenile court are generally treated very differently than adult cases. The point of treating juveniles differently than adults stretches back decades. In 1977 a major piece of law focused on juveniles was passed in Washington, called the Juvenile Justice Act. It was designed to create a system “capable of having primary responsibility for, being accountable for, and responding to the needs of youthful offenders and their victims.”
The needs of youths are one of the top priorities in juvenile court, unlike in adult court, which is more focused on deterrence and punishment for offenders.
That’s why, in juvenile court, the process is most of the time collaborative rather than adversarial. The government and the youth (called the Respondent in these proceedings) work together and closely most of the time to reach a resolution that provides accountability, responsibility, justice, and also addresses any future behavior of the youth. For example, if the youth is charged with spraying graffiti at a public park, an often seen resolution would involve community service cleaning up public spaces. If drug use or addiction is a problem for the youth, treatment services and resources can be brought to bear for the child. Creative solutions can be designed to address a variety of situations.
The ways cases can resolve are different than adults as well. One example of this is the existence of the aforementioned deferred disposition, found in RCW 13.40.127. This is a way for many youths, who only have one brush with the law, to make their case go away with no jail or detention time and nothing on their record moving into adulthood. Even many felony cases can use this procedure, although sex or violent crimes are not allowed and there are some other restrictions. I wish this option was available for many of my adult clients!
An important part of the process is securing agreement from both the prosecuting attorney, but also the juvenile probation counselor, who is regularly assigned to a youth’s case at the beginning. Unlike adult court, we work closely with probation officials in juvenile court, who can often act as strong advocates for the youth to both the prosecutor and the judge. Getting a probation officer to support the youth really raises the odds of a successful end to the case.
In our young client’s case, he was placed on a six month probation and had to complete some community service, along with writing an apology letter. After he did those things, and had expressed genuine remorse for his actions, the judge granted our request for a deferred disposition and his case was dismissed. It could never haunt him again, and we’re pleased to say that this client is now starting out as a freshman in college this Fall (with no black marks hanging over his head from his earlier youth).
Whether its an adult or a youth who is in trouble, the chances are very good that we can help.
Enjoy the new season!