Georgia Juvenile Court Procedures
The Georgia Juvenile Code can be overwhelming and difficult to navigate on your own. Our Georgia Juvenile Attorneys are here to assist with your case. We have outlined the steps in a juvenile case but this does not replace the need for a Lawyer. Contact our offices today for assistance with your case.
Filing of the Complaint
The complaint is the initial document setting out the circumstances that resulted in a child being brought before the court. O.C.G.A. § 15-11-2. It can be filed by law enforcement or by a private citizen. It is typically the first document filed in a case and triggers all of the subsequent proceedings.
When a child under the age of 17 is arrested and taken into custody by law enforcement officer, that officer is required by law to do one of three things: release the child to his or her parent(s), deliver the child to a hospital (if the child requires prompt treatment), or contact a juvenile intake officer. If the officer contacts a juvenile intake officer, that intake officer uses a standardized set of criteria called a Detention Assessment to determine if the child must immediately be taken into custody or released to his or her parents. O.C.G.A. § 15-11-502.
Under Georgia law, when a child is taken into custody, the Juvenile Court must hold a detention hearing within 5 days if the child was arrested pursuant to an arrest warrant, or within 2 days if the child was arrested without an arrest warrant. O.C.G.A. § 15-11-506.
At the detention hearing, the court must inform the child of:
- The contents of the complaint or petition,
- The nature of the proceedings,
- The right to request bail,
- The possible consequences or dispositions that the child may face post-adjudication, and
- His or her due process rights. O.C.G.A. § 15-11-506.
The judge must also determine whether there is sufficient evidence, or probable cause, to believe that the child committed the offense of which he is accused. Typically, the State presents evidence – usually in the form of witness testimony -- and the defense has the opportunity to both present its own evidence and to cross-examine, or question, any witnesses that testify for the State. Typically, hearsay – information gathered from sources other than the witness who is testifying – is allowed to be used at probable cause hearings. The decision of how best to handle a probable cause hearing is a strategic decision and should be made by an attorney experienced in Georgia Juvenile Law because a probable cause hearing can affect the outcome of the case.
If the judge finds that probable cause exists in the case, the judge then makes a decision regarding release or detention of the child. Under the Georgia Juvenile Code, Juvenile Court judges are instructed to examine several factors to determine whether a child should be released or detained pending the child's next court date. These include:
- Whether the child poses a danger to others,
- Whether the child has demonstrated a pattern of theft or destruction of property, and
- Whether the child is a flight risk. O.C.G.A. § 15-11-503.
While this list offers guidance for judges, it is not an exhaustive list, and judges may detain children for other reasons. Children may NOT, however, be detained:
- For purposes of punishment, treatment, or rehabilitation,
- To relieve a guardian of his or her legal responsibilities,
- To satisfy demands of a victim or law enforcement,
- To allow easier access to the child,
- To facilitate interrogation or investigation, or
- Due to the lack of a more appropriate facility. O.C.G.A. § 15-11-503.
If a Georgia Juvenile Court Judge determines that a child may be released to his or her guardian, the judge may impose certain conditions of release. For example, the judge may order that the child is confined to the home, or that the child has no contact with the victim. A judge may also ask that services, like family therapy or individual counseling, begin immediately upon the child's pre-trial release.
If a child is detained, he or she may only be detained in:
- A licensed foster home,
- A home approved by the court (which may be public or private),
- The home of a relative,
- A facility operated by a licensed child welfare agency, or
- A secure residential facility (in Georgia these are referred to as Regional Youth Detention Centers or RYDCs).
If a child is to be detained, he or she must be detained in the least restrictive facility available, and the judge must take into account the best interests of the child in making this determination. O.C.G.A. § 15-11-504.
If your child is taken into custody in Georgia, it is essential that you act quickly, because the detention hearing will occur within days of your child being picked up by law enforcement. You must also ensure that you hire an experienced Georgia Juvenile Court Attorney because all of the law discussed above is unique to Juvenile Court. An attorney who only practices in State or Superior Court will be unfamiliar with all of these features of juvenile law.
Filing of the Petition
The petition is the formal charging document in Georgia Juvenile Courts and lays out exactly what the child is alleged to have done.
If a child is detained, the petition must be filed no later than 72 hours after the detention hearing. If the petition is not filed within that time, the child must be released, and the complaint must be dismissed. However, the complaint is dismissed without prejudice, meaning that the complaint can be refiled and the case recommenced. O.C.G.A. § 15-11-521.
If the child is not detained, the petition must be filed no later than 30 days after the filing of the complaint or within 30 days of the child's release following a detention hearing. The State may request an extension of this time limit, but it must show good cause and give notice of its request to all parties. O.C.G.A. § 15-11-521. If the State fails to file its petition within the 30 day time limit (and does not request an extension), the complaint is dismissed without prejudice. In the Interest of M. D. H., 300 Ga. 46, 793 S.E.2d 49 (2016).
The petition is required to contain certain information, including:
- The facts which bring the child within the jurisdiction of the court,
- The name, age, and address of the child,
- The name and address of the child's parent or guardian,
- The place of the child's detention (if the child is detained), and
- If the child is charged with a class A or class B designated felony. O.C.G.A § 15-11-522.
At the arraignment, the court informs the child of:
- The contents of the petition alleging delinquency,
- The nature of the proceedings,
- The possible consequences or dispositions that may occur after adjudication, and
- His or her due process rights. O.C.G.A. § 15-11-511.
If a child is not detained, an arraignment must be held within 30 days of the filing of the petition. If the child is detained, an arraignment is not held due to the expedited adjudicatory hearing.
A child who is represented by a Georgia Juvenile Court Attorney may enter an admission (analogous to a guilty plea in State or Superior Court) at arraignment. Some Georgia Juvenile Courts allow an attorney to waive arraignment on behalf of his or her client.
If a child has been detained after a detention hearing, the adjudication must take place no later than ten (10) days following the filing of the petition. If the child is not in detention, the hearing shall be held no later than 60 days after the filing of the petition. O.C.G.A. § 15-11-582.
When a child appears before a juvenile court judge for an adjudicatory hearing, the judge must address the child in developmentally appropriate language and determine whether such child is capable of understanding his or her rights. O.C.G.A. § 15-11-580. If the child is capable, the judge will ask how the child wishes to answer to the charges he or she is facing. The child may deny the allegations (go to trial) or admit the allegations (take a plea). This decision should only be made after consulting with a Georgia Juvenile Lawyer, because it can have a huge impact on the disposition, or outcome, of the case.
If the child denies the allegations, the trial commences. In juvenile court, there are no juries. Rather, the judge sits as the trier of fact. O.C.G.A. § 15-11-582. Both the defense and the State may call their own witnesses, cross examine adverse witnesses and present evidence to the court. At trial, both parties are bound by the Georgia Rules of Evidence. The child may testify on his or her own behalf or may remain silent. The child's refusal to testify may not be used against him or her and does not constitute an admission of guilt. The decision of whether or not to testify is another crucial decision that should not be made without consulting with an attorney, because if the child testifies, he or she may be cross-examined by the State. The State must prove the allegations of a delinquency petition beyond a reasonable doubt. O.C.G.A. § 15-11-581. If the judge finds that the allegation has not be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, the judge must dismiss the delinquency petition and order the child to be released from detention. O.C.G.A. § 15-11-582.
If the child does not wish to go to trial, he or she may enter an admission to the charge(s). The court must inquire to determine whether there are facts to support the child's adjudication. O.C.G.A. § 15-11-580. Usually, the State then recites a brief statement of the facts of the case. There are several types of admissions in juvenile court. The most common is a regular admission. Under an admission, the child freely admits that he engaged in the behavior set out in the petition. Admissions may be negotiated or non-negotiated (see below under Disposition).
The second and less common type of admission is an admission under Alford v. North Carolina, a U.S. Supreme Court case wherein the Supreme Court found that an individual accused of a crime may “voluntarily, knowingly, and understandingly consent to the imposition [of punishment] even if he is unwilling or unable to admit his participation in the acts constituting the crime.” N.C. v. Alford, 400 U.S. 25, 91 S. Ct. 160, 27 L.Ed.2d 162 (1970). In the past, some Georgia Juvenile Court judges have refused to accept admissions under Alford v. North Carolina. N.C. v. Alford, 400 U.S. 25, 91 S. Ct. 160, 27 L.Ed.2d 162 (1970). However, the Georgia Court of Appeals has stated that this is incorrect and that nothing in the Georgia Juvenile Code prevents a child from entering an admission under Alford. In the Interest of B.C., 333 Ga. App. 763, 777 S.E.2d 52 (2015). Typically, the entry of an admission under Alford has little to no effect on the punishment imposed; however, consult your Georgia Juvenile Court Attorney to discuss whether this option is right for you.
Once the judge has made a finding of delinquency, either after a trial or after an admission, the judge must then determine an appropriate disposition or outcome. This can happen immediately after the adjudication, or the judge may postpone the disposition hearing. O.C.G.A. § 15-11-582. If the judge decides to postpone the disposition hearing, the court must hear the case within 30 days of the adjudication hearing. O.C.G.A. § 15-11-600. Before disposition, the judge may order that a pre-disposition investigation report is prepared by a probation officer or other person designated by the court. O.C.G.A. § 15-11-590. Depending on the charges, some judges order additional evaluations, such as psychological or psychosexual evaluations, to be considered at the disposition hearing.
Dispositions may be negotiated or non-negotiated. For a negotiated admission, a Georgia Juvenile Court Attorney will speak with the prosecutor and work out a disposition that is acceptable to both parties. For example, the prosecutor may agree to dismiss certain charges in exchange for an admission to other charges. Alternatively, a child may agree to admit to a charge with the agreement that the prosecutor will recommend a certain disposition for the case. It is in the judge's discretion to accept a negotiated admission or to deviate from it. However, if the judge deviates from what the State and the defense have negotiated, the child may withdraw his admission.
The second option is a non-negotiated admission, also known in some courts as a blind admission. This means that the child is admitting to some or all of the charges, but that the State and the child's attorney have not agreed on an outcome of the case. Each side makes a recommendation to the judge, and the judge ultimately decides what the disposition should be.
During a disposition hearing, the judge will hear evidence and determine whether the child is “in need of treatment, rehabilitation, or supervision.” O.C.G.A. § 15-11-600. If the judge determines that the child is in need of treatment, rehabilitation, or supervision, he or she then determines what an appropriate outcome of the case is. Hearsay evidence is permissible during the disposition hearing. O.C.G.A. § 15-11-600. The judge takes into account the results of any reports and/or evaluations that have been conducted. However, all reports to be relied upon by the judge during disposition must be provided to both the State and the defense, and your Georgia Juvenile Court Attorney must be provided the opportunity to question or cross-examine, the creators of those reports (as well as any other witnesses that testify).
Possible outcomes in Georgia Juvenile Courts vary greatly depending on what the child ultimately is adjudicated of – felonies carry a greater punishment than do misdemeanors, and designated felonies carry a greater punishment still.
Some judges review cases post-disposition, particularly if the child is placed under the supervision of a probation department. Some jurisdictions have their own independent probation departments, while others depend wholly on the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice for supervision of children in delinquency cases. The review hearing is designed to give the judge an update on the child and to make any necessary modifications in the child's disposition.
Georgia Juvenile Law is an extremely specific practice area and requires extensive knowledge of both Georgia Criminal Law and the Georgia Juvenile Code (which is over 100 pages in a Georgia code book). Do not hire an attorney who only handles adult cases! Call The Law Offices of Richard Lawson or one of our Georgia Juvenile Court Lawyers to schedule a free consultation. Our Attorneys are highly knowledgeable in juvenile law and will assist you and your child in formulating the best possible defense. We understand that this process is overwhelming and intimidating and that juvenile courts are bound by very stringent timelines that move very quickly. That is why we pride ourselves on being accessible to our clients – days, nights, weekends, and holidays. We will ensure that you and your child understand all your options. Contact us today.