Wabanaki Legal News, Winter 2005
By J. Peter Sabonis, Esq.
There is one set of criminal laws for all persons in Maine. If a person under 18 years of age violates them, it is considered a juvenile crime and is handled under the Juvenile Court system. If a violator is 18 years of age or older, he or she will be charged and tried as an adult. At times, crimes are so serious that the state may ask that a juvenile be charged as an adult. (Transferring those types of cases to the adult court is called "bind over.")
The Juvenile Court system, unlike the adult criminal system, tries to focus more on rehabilitation than punishment. It does this by giving a lot of power to Juvenile Community Corrections Officers (JCCO), also known as "probation" or "juvenile intake" officers. A JCCO will be assigned to your child and will try to find out as much as he or she can about your child and your family. Developing a good relationship with the JCCO is important.
If your child is arrested, the law requires that a police officer or a JCCO contact you without delay and tell you where your child is. The police officer must try to contact you before questioning your child about the alleged crime. If you or your child asks for an attorney, the questioning of your child must stop.
Your child has a right to an attorney at this and every stage of the process. If you cannot afford an attorney, the court can appoint one for you. But this appointment will happen only when your child goes to court, not at the police station. If you want an attorney for your child at the police station, you must get one yourself. (This attorney later may ask the court for an appointment to your child's case, as a way of getting paid. Discuss this with the attorney.)
Release or Jail
There are three things that can happen to your child after being arrested:
- Unconditional Release-this means that your child is allowed to leave, usually upon the promise that he or she will come to court on the date that has been scheduled.
- Conditional Release-this means that your child must remain in some specific place until the court date-like your home, a group home, emergency shelter, foster care placement or some other care arrangement.
- Detention-this means that your child will be placed in a juvenile jail or other detention facility.
If a child is placed in detention, this triggers a whole set of laws that deal specifically with detention. These laws involve things like whether your child can be detained in a building that also houses adults, and, if so, for how long. Also, within 24 to 48 hours of the detention, a court hearing must occur where the judge will decide whether continued detention is needed until the date of trial, or if your child can be released (either conditionally or unconditionally) until then. This is called a Detention Hearing.
- At this point in court, an attorney will be appointed for your child if you cannot afford one. Involvement of an attorney at this hearing is extremely important.
- Because of the way some courts operate, a court appointed attorney for the Detention Hearing might do nothing more than represent your child at the Detention Hearing. Make sure you ask for a court appointed attorney for your child's entire case before you leave the Detention Hearing (especially if the Court orders your child to stay in detention).
Before Your Child Goes to Court
Children released conditionally or unconditionally (even after detention), must follow all the rules and conditions that were imposed when they were released, or else they risk getting arrested or detained again.
A lot can happen before your child's court appearance. The JCCO should schedule interviews with you and your child to gather social history and information about the offense. The JCCO has the authority to decide whether the case will go to court or whether it can be taken care of informally (for example, by making restitution to the victim, obtaining services for your child voluntarily, etc). Informal cases usually involve first-time offenders who admit they committed the crime.
If your child denies the offense, then these preliminary interviews with the JCCO will still occur, but the JCCO must send the matter to court. The JCCO has no right to determine guilt or force anyone to admit to a crime. For information about the JCCO in your region, go to www.state.me.us/corrections/JuvServices.htm.
The Arraignment at Court
If your child's case goes to court, the first court appearance (not counting the Detention Hearing) involves what is commonly called "arraignment."
At this time, a number of things will happen.
- The court will decide whether the conditional or unconditional release that was granted your child at the time of the arrest or detention hearing will continue until the date of trial.
- The charge against your child will be read aloud.
- An attorney will be appointed to represent your child if you cannot afford one.
- Your child will enter a plea that either admits or denies the charge.
If your child denies the charge, a court date for trial-called "adjudication"-will be scheduled for you to return. If your child admits the charge, then he or she already has been "adjudicated," and will move on to the "disposition" process (see below).
Parents are required by law to attend all court proceedings concerning the juvenile. If there are circumstances that prevent you from attending, bring this to the attention of the Juvenile Court judge as soon as possible.
The court date for an "adjudication" hearing is when the trial of the case will be held. At that time, the state tries to prove the case against your child; and your child will get the opportunity to cross-examine the state's witnesses, and introduce his or her own evidence. There is no jury, just a judge. If the judge finds your child guilty, an Order of Adjudication will be issued. Once the court issues this order of Adjudication, it must move on to what is called a "Dispositional" Hearing.
Very few juvenile cases in Maine actually involve trials. Most cases are resolved by a plea agreement, where your child usually admits to the charge (or a lesser charge) in exchange for a good disposition. This is not necessarily bad. Juvenile prosecutors often make good offers that should be accepted.
But before a plea agreement is accepted, find out whether the criminal record of the case will be available to the public or not. Many people-even lawyers-think that all juvenile adjudications are sealed from public view or are automatically expunged (erased) at age 18. This is not true. Adjudications involving Felony type offenses (Murder, or Class A, B, or C crimes) are public proceedings. Adjudications of some Misdemeanor type offenses (Class D or E crimes) may also be public if felony or repeat offenses also are involved. Any public proceeding is a public record. And public records can be obtained by private employers, landlords, banks and others through various low-cost, internet-based investigation companies. A good attorney for your child should know whether the matter will be a public record, and how it will affect your child's employment, credit, or the ability to apply for financial aid or military service. Consider these things before accepting a plea offer.
The sentencing stage of your child's case is called the Disposition. Disposition can occur immediately after adjudication, or it can be delayed for up to 2 weeks (or even longer if there is good cause). Usually, a report will be prepared by the JCCO, and the state will have some recommendation. Disposition can involve:
- Participation in treatment services
- Community Service
- Supervised Work
- Commitment to the Department of Health and Human Services (foster care, group home, etc.)
- Long or short-term sentence to a Department of Corrections juvenile facility (Long Creek Detention Center or Mountain View Treatment Facility).
- Payment of a fine (rare)
- A "suspended" disposition and probation (with conditions).
When you cannot reach an agreement on Disposition, a Disposition Hearing will be held. At this point, each side can introduce evidence, reports, and witnesses in order to persuade the court to adopt a particular disposition. Practically anything relating to your child is important at this stage-learning, physical, mental, and addiction problems. Bring these things to your attorney's (or the Judge's) attention. The court also can have your child examined by a Doctor or Psychologist at this point, though it might ask you (or MaineCare) to pay for it.
After the Judge hears all the evidence, or hears the agreement reached, he or she decides what will happen to your child. The Judge makes the decision based on what is best for your child AND the public.
Appeals can be made either after the court issues an Adjudication or a Disposition order, but must be filed with the Superior Court within 5 days of the entry of the order.