Law Offices of M. Gabriela Guraiib

When Are Minors Charged as Adults in California?


Minors occupy a strange middle ground in California’s criminal legal system. When young children violate the law, it’s usually because their guardians have failed them, and they should not be criminally penalized. In contrast, people 18 and older are legal adults and are responsible for following the law and the penalties if they break it.

Teenagers younger than 18 are in a period of transition between these two ages. They have more awareness of right and wrong than young kids, but they are still much more vulnerable to negative influences than adults. When teenagers break the law, they likely know what they’re doing but may not understand that they have other, better options. Treating them like criminal adults instead of children who need help could lead them to lifelong behavioral problems.

That’s why California operates a robust juvenile delinquency system. This system is intended to help kids who have violated the law get back on track. Many violations committed by minors remain entirely within the juvenile delinquency system, but not all. In certain cases, the judge may charge the child as an adult. 

Being charged as an adult vs. as a minor has lifelong consequences. If your child is facing serious criminal charges, it is in their best interest for the case to remain in juvenile court. Here’s what it means to be charged as an adult in California, how these charges are determined, and how to best protect your child.

What Does Being Charged as an Adult Mean?

People over 18 are considered legal adults who understand their actions and the potential consequences. If they break the law, they are deemed competent to stand trial and receive any penalties permitted under the law. 

This is not the case for minors. In most situations, they are considered too young to be fully responsible for their actions. 

But what about particularly serious crimes? Teenagers are more than old enough to understand that assault and murder are wrong. If a 16-year-old chooses to shoot someone, it is difficult to argue that they didn’t know they were doing something wrong. That’s when they may be treated as adults.

In California, 16- and 17-year-olds can be charged as adults for serious crimes, including:

They are considered to know enough about the world to bear full responsibility for these particularly harmful crimes. As such, judges can use their discretion to charge them as adults, with all the additional penalties that entails.

California Laws on Criminal Charges for Minors

Under Proposition 57, California bars all minors 15 and younger from being tried as adults. Instead, regardless of the severity of the charge, they remain under the jurisdiction of juvenile courts. This has several benefits for the accused minor, such as:

  • Most juvenile records can be sealed. Some records are automatically sealed, while those for more serious crimes can be sealed upon request after the minor turns 21 and completes their probation. Many can even have their records expunged entirely.
  • Juvenile convictions do not involve prison sentences. Instead, they lead to probation at home or in a dedicated institution such as a probation camp. Rarely, they may include placement in a Secure Youth Treatment Facility or the Division of Juvenile Justice. Still, these facilities are focused on young offenders, and stays are frequently months rather than years.
  • Juvenile courts focus on rehabilitation, not punishment. The entire purpose of the juvenile justice system is to help guide young offenders away from crime by giving them other options rather than punishing them. 

However, the law still permits minors 16 and older to be charged as adults. If convicted, they can face all the penalties a legal adult would, including years-long prison sentences and a permanent criminal record. 

The difference between adult and juvenile courts and penalties is stark. So is the outcome for minors charged in one compared to the other. The adult judicial system is not designed for adolescents and does not have appropriate rehabilitation or education programs. Teenagers charged as adults frequently have poorer outcomes and life-long entanglements with the legal system. In contrast, kids who remain in the juvenile system are less likely to face additional criminal charges as adults and have better outcomes overall. 

Keeping Matters in Juvenile Court

If your child has been accused of a serious crime, the best thing you can do for them is to help them remain in the juvenile court system. You can work toward this goal by consulting an experienced California criminal defense attorney. 

Your child’s attorney can assist your family by:

  • Ensuring you and your child understand their rights and responsibilities throughout the proceedings.
  • Building a case to keep the matter in the juvenile court system.
  • Providing a comprehensive defense for your child whether the matter remains in juvenile court or they are tried as an adult.

This assistance is invaluable for helping your child overcome this difficult period and continue toward a law-abiding adult life. 

Talk to the Experts at the Law Offices of M. Gabriela Guraiib

No one deserves to face the full weight of the judicial system alone, children least of all. If your child has been accused of a serious crime, they could be tried as adults and receive a lifelong criminal record. At the Law Offices of M. Gabriela Guraiib, we are here to support and defend your child during this difficult time. Our skilled attorneys are available to assist you if your child is being tried as an adult. Learn more about how we can defend your child from allegations of violence or other serious crimes by scheduling your consultation today.