What Lies Ahead: A Map of the Juvenile Justice System

The stages of the Juvenile Justice System are different than the adult system, as cases typically travel through the juvenile system much faster. What follows is a general description of how a juvenile case will progress from beginning to end in Hillsborough County and Sarasota County.

Arrest, Release, and Detention

When a juvenile first encounters law enforcement, the officer will create a Probable Cause Affidavit (often referred to as an “arrest report”).  While a law enforcement officer used to be able to directly refer a child to diversion, that is no longer the case.  Now, a child will either be referred to the Civil Citation program within the DJJ, or will be taken into custody and delivered to DJJ at the Juvenile Assessment Center (JAC).

Either way, a DJJ counselor will then prepare a risk assessment report to determine if the child meets the criteria for secure detention, may be released to their parent/guardian for non-secure detention, or receive daily supervision from a DJJ counselor.

If the child fails to follow the rules of non-secure detention, the juvenile may then be held in the detention center.

Detention Hearing

If the juvenile is detained at the JACS and held overnight, a detention hearing must be held within 24 hours of the arrest. At this hearing, the judge determines whether to release the juvenile and, if so, what conditions of release shall be placed on the juvenile.

If the Judge does not release the juvenile, he or she remains in the juvenile detention center for a period of no more than 21 days (or under very limited circumstances for a period of 30 days).


Between the time of the child’s arrest and the next court date, the State Attorney will review the facts of the case and determine what charges, if any, will be filed against the juvenile. If there is enough evidence, the attorney files a petition describing the charges against the juvenile.


About three weeks after the arrest, a juvenile will appear for arraignment. This is a hearing where the juvenile is informed of the charges filed by the State and asked to enter a plea to those charges (Guilty, Not Guilty, or No Contest).

It is important that you have retained an attorney by this time as the case will likely be scheduled for trial less than four weeks after the arraignment.


Between the arraignment date and the trial date the attorneys engage in a process known as discovery, which involves the exchange of evidence.

During the discovery period any witness, including the victim, may be subpoenaed to give a sworn statement under oath to the defense attorney as to their knowledge of the case.

The State Attorney will also be required to provide the defense with any reports, documents, or recordings they may have.

Pretrial Diversion Programs

As addressed above, there are several programs in which first-time juvenile offenders may participate.  With the right attorney and right approach, even second-timers can be granted access to these programs.  Each program is different, but requires the juvenile to obey certain rules and complete certain sanctions, such as community service, restitution, counseling, a letter of apology, etc.

If the program is completed, the charges are dropped. If the juvenile does not fulfill the requirements of the program, the charges are reactivated and prosecution pursued.

Plea Negotiations

A defendant may change a plea of Not Guilty at any time. In many cases, the State Attorney and defense will discuss how to resolve a case without a trial. Once a juvenile changes their plea to Guilty or No Contest, there is no trial and we proceed to a sentencing hearing, in which the judge will hear both sides’ arguments of mitigation and prosecution.


If no agreement can be reached, and the charges still stand, then the case will go to trial.  Another large difference between adult and juvenile court is that juvenile court only holds bench trials.  In other words, there are absolutely no juries in juvenile court.  Instead, the judge is the finder of fact and decides the outcome of each and every case.

The State is required to prove “beyond and to the exclusion of every reasonable doubt” that the defendant committed the crime. The defendant is not required to prove anything. Witnesses, including the victim, are subpoenaed to testify and be cross-examined by the defense.

The Verdict

The Judge decides whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty, and announces the verdict aloud in the courtroom.  Sentencing generally does not take place at this time.

If the defendant is guilty, the Judge may order DJJ to prepare a predisposition report recommending sanctions for the juvenile.

Pre-Disposition Reports

A predisposition report is an inquiry into the background, criminal history and family circumstances of the juvenile. It is completed by DJJ and given to the Judge, the defense attorney, the defendant and the Assistant State Attorney. The report includes a sentencing recommendation for the Judge to review. Although the Judge may order DJJ to complete a predisposition report, they are not required or completed in all cases.

Dispositional Hearings

Once a defendant has been found guilty or enters a plea to a charge, a dispositional hearing or sentencing hearing will be set.

A judge sentences a juvenile in a manner appropriate to the crime and other circumstances related to the case. The Juvenile Court has jurisdiction over the defendant until his or her 19th birthday (or, under some rare circumstances to age 21).

The Judge may impose two types of sentences

  1. Probation: If placed on probation, a judge will likely impose community service, a letter of apology, counseling, etc.
  2. Commitment: If the judge commits to DJJ, the judge will commit the juvenile to a “level” that is appropriate for his crime. There are currently four different levels of commitment:
    1. Low risk programs that last from 30-45 days,
    2. Moderate risk programs that last from 4-6 months,
    3. High risk programs that last from 6-9 months, and
    4. juvenile prison that lasts from 18-36 months.