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When are children in California too young to be prosecuted?
California relies on a blanket assumption that children under 14 are legally incapable of committing crimes. This means that even if they physically commit a crime, it will most likely not qualify as such because children this young don’t have the maturity or mental capacity to understand the wrongfulness of their actions. If, however, a prosecutor believes that the child did appreciate the nature of his/her actions, the prosecutor would file the case in juvenile court and arrange for a California juvenile adjudication hearing. This is the equivalent of an adult’s trial.
1. At what age might children appreciate the wrongfulness of their actions?
The answer depends on the individual child, as some children are more mature than others.
With that said, though, some children are definitely too young to appreciate the nature of their actions. For example, if a two-year-old accidentally shot a real gun and killed a parent, the child would have no clue that what he/she did was wrong.
But what if it wasn’t a two-year-old, but rather a ten-year-old? What about a 13-year-old? A 17-year-old? Then the facts of a case come into play. A judge would have to analyze them to determine if the child truly appreciated his/her wrongdoing.
2. When should a child be tried as an adult?
This is a question often raised with the one above. The answer depends on whether a child committed a crime under aggravating circumstances. If yes, then the greater the chance the child would be tried as an adult (2020 update: In Los Angeles county, juveniles are no longer transferred to adult court under LADA Special Directive 20-09.).
A former Los Angeles prosecutor, attorney Neil Shouse graduated with honors from UC Berkeley and Harvard Law School (and completed additional graduate studies at MIT). He has been featured on CNN, Good Morning America, Dr Phil, The Today Show and Court TV. Mr Shouse has been recognized by the National Trial Lawyers as one of the Top 100 Criminal and Top 100 Civil Attorneys.
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