How the Juvenile Criminal System Works in Fairfax County
You’re a resident of Fairfax County and you have just received every parent’s nightmare—a phone call from the police telling you that your child has been arrested and will be facing criminal charges. For many parents, this will be your first interaction with the justice system and it is important to know that the juvenile system in Fairfax County is nothing like what you see on Law & Order or other TV shows. In fact, the juvenile system is so different from the adult criminal system in Fairfax, in terms of procedure and terminology, that many long-time attorneys find it confusing.
Every criminal charge for a juvenile in Fairfax starts with a “petition” (as opposed to a warrant or indictment for adults). The petition will state the child’s name and address, the name and address of the child’s parents and/or guardians, the nature of the allegation and facts that led to the petition being issued, and a statement on the child’s custody status. All juvenile criminal cases are filed in the Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court. Juvenile criminal cases are termed “delinquency” cases and when found guilty, a juvenile is “found to be delinquent” of an offense that would be criminal as an adult. Delinquency offenses include adult felonies, adult misdemeanors, and child-only offenses such as running away from home, truancy, or behavior that poses a threat to themselves or another that are commonly known as CHINS (child in need of supervision or child in need of services) petitions. Some children may be diverted prior to a formal legal process beginning if the offense is relatively minor and can be handled without going to court.
The first step in the legal process is the detention hearing. When a child has been taken into custody and not released, the child appears before the judge on the next day of court for a detention hearing. Detention hearings are held every day in Fairfax, and usually take place at 1:30 p.m. If your child has a detention hearing scheduled, you will be notified and expected to check in at Juvenile Intake on the 1st Floor of the Fairfax County Courthouse prior to the hearing. When neither parent can make it, a guardian ad litem (GAL) will be appointed for the hearing. A GAL is an independent attorney appointed to protect your child’s interests.
At the detention hearing, your child will be advised of his or her trial rights and the court will determine their custody status pending trial. In order to keep a child in custody, the court has to determine whether there is probable cause that the child committed the offense. If probable cause is not found, the child will be released at the hearing and a trial date set. If probable cause is found, then the court will determine whether to release the child to the parents or hold the child in either the less secure/shelter care facility or in juvenile detention. When a child is released to their parents, the court may impose supervised outreach through juvenile probation—which could include the child having a curfew, being on house arrest or being put on electronic monitoring. When a child is kept in custody, they will either be sent to Shelter Care, which resembles a group home, or to the Fairfax County Juvenile Detention Center, which is the juvenile equivalent of jail. When a child is kept in custody, the court is required to set the trial date within 21 days of the detention hearing.
At the trial date, your child has the same options as an adult to plead guilty, not guilty, or nolo contendere (no contest). If your child pleads guilty or is found guilty, the court will impose a sentence. Sentencing in juvenile cases is a lot more unpredictable then for adults because the court will consider the child’s social history, developmental needs, and best interests in addition to the severity of the crime and the child’s prior record. Sentencing can range anywhere from a deferred disposition that will lead to a dismissal of the charges after a period of time, all the way to a commitment to the Department of Juvenile Justice (the juvenile equivalent of prison) for the severest offenders. Many children will be released to their parents and put on probation after trial. Fairfax has numerous post-dispositional programs such as Foundations (formerly Girls Probation House), Boys Probation House, Transitional Living Program and the Beta Program if probation and release is not appropriate for the child. Oftentimes there will be periodic reviews of a child’s progress when they are in one of these programs.
If your child is charged with a juvenile offense in Fairfax County, be sure to consult with an attorney experienced in the intricacies of the Fairfax system. The juvenile defense lawyers at Livesay & Myers have extensive experience with juvenile cases in Fairfax County and across Northern Virginia. Contact us to schedule a consultation today.