The Juvenile Court Process: What You Should Know


The juvenile court process has similarities to adult court but varies in a few important ways. Here’s what to expect as you navigate through the various stages of juvenile court proceedings.

1) Investigation

The stage of the criminal process where officers or school officials investigate potential criminal charges is referred to as the investigation phase. This stage involves everything prior to an official decision to file charges or not to file charges against a youth. This is an important stage for a juvenile to have an attorney. This is often the stage where officers get statements from witnesses and alleged victims but most importantly, this is the stage where officers often obtain confessions from juveniles. Having an attorney representing a juvenile during this stage can be imperative to avoiding criminal charges or advocating for lesser charges to be filed against the juvenile. An attorney can also advocate for having criminal charges filed in juvenile court instead of adult court if the juvenile is close to his or her 18th birthday.

2) Diversion

Only some juveniles qualify for diversion. Click here for more information on which juveniles qualify for diversion. If a juvenile qualifies for diversion, this is a great option to avoid the youth having any juvenile criminal history for the charge. If a juvenile successfully completes the diversion agreement, then charges are never filed against them in that case.

3) First Appearance

This hearing is held the next court day after a youth is booked into detention. Only youth that are being held in detention will have this hearing. The purpose of the First Appearance is for the court to determine if there is probable cause for the court to hold the youth in detention and then to determine if the youth should be held in detention or released with conditions of release imposed. The court then schedules a Second Appearance which is the next hearing and the deadline for the prosecutor to file charges if the youth is held in detention.

4)  Arraignment

In this initial court appearance, the accused teen will have the chance to hear the charges against her or him and enter a plea of “guilty” or “not guilty.” It is very rare that the court will allow a youth to enter a guilty plea before he or she has had an opportunity to speak with an attorney so the youth will likely enter a not guilty plea. The judge will review rights with the minor and also make a decision about whether he or she will be held in detention. If the judge decides to release the teen, the judge will determine the conditions of release (such as whether the teen is allowed to attend school or must stay at home under parental supervision). If there are other hearings required, such as a decline hearing to determine whether the youth must be tried as an adult, these will be scheduled next. The statute mandating that juveniles be “declined” (charged in adult court) can be found in RCW 13.04.030 to which amendments will take effect on June 7, 2018.

5) Pre-Trial Hearing (also known as Pretrial Conference or a Case Setting Hearing)

A wide variety of outcomes are possible at this hearing depending on the nature of individual juvenile cases. These hearings are often continued (setting another pretrial hearing at a later date) to allow attorneys more time to prepare an adequate defense to the case. This is sometimes done in order to allow time for court-ordered tests or to give defense counsel time for reviewing the prosecution’s evidence against the minor. Alternatively, the youth and his or her lawyer may request a date be set for a plea and disposition (sentencing). If the decision is made to continue the case to trial, a date may be set for a motions hearing, where defense counsel argues motions to exclude certain pieces of evidence, certain witnesses, or even argues a motion to dismiss the case entirely. If a case is set for trial, there will then be an Omnibus hearing and then a “Fact Finding Hearing” which is the juvenile version of a trial.

6)  Fact Finding Hearing (also known as an adjudication hearing or trial)

In juvenile court, instead of a jury, a judge is the one to decide whether the prosecuting attorney has proven his or her case beyond a reasonable doubt. This takes place during an “adjudication hearing,” or “fact finding hearing,” which is the same thing as a trial. If the judge decides the prosecutor has proven the case, the judge will find the juvenile guilty; if not, the judge will find the juvenile not guilty.

7) Disposition

If the judge finds the youth guilty, the teen and her or his attorney will attend a disposition hearing, which is the same as sentencing in adult court. Attorneys may present mitigation packets with letters testifying to the teen’s good character from individuals who know him or her. Juvenile sentences, called “disposition orders,” can be either for incarceration at Juvenile Rehabilitation, detention in the local juvenile detention center (referred to as “local sanctions”) or some other sentence that does not involve incarceration.  Non-incarceration disposition orders may include a fine, counseling, classes, probation, school attendance requirements, or community service, among other things.

8) After Disposition

In the State of Washington, the court will automatically schedule a sealing hearing at the disposition hearing for the latest of the following occurrences: 1) the youth’s 18th birthday, 2) anticipated completion of probation, or 3) anticipated release from Juvenile Rehabilitation. The juvenile record will be sealed at that hearing so long as the youth has completed all conditions of the disposition, including restitution (unless it is owed to an insurance company), unless the juvenile was charged with a most serious offense as defined in RCW 9.94A.030, a sex offense as defined in RCW 9A.44, or a drug offense as defined in RCW 9.94A.030. If a sealing hearing was not automatically scheduled at the disposition hearing, then a person can file a motion to seal their juvenile record any time after their 18th birthday so long as they meet the conditions laid out in RCW 13.50.260. Once a juvenile record is sealed, the individual may legally tell employers and others he or she has never been convicted of that crime.