In South Carolina, juvenile delinquency cases are heard in family court. A child (also known as a juvenile) is defined as a person less than 17 years of age. One exception of the definition is that it does not include a person 16 years old if they are charged with a Class A, B, C, or D Felony or a felony that provides for a maximum sentence of 15 years or more. However, in the solicitor's discretion, the case can be remanded down to family court and the case be handled as a juvenile case. If it is determined that a person is not a child, his or her case will be heard like an ordinary case in the court of general sessions.
Children can be charged with criminal offenses or with status offenses. Status offenses are acts that would not be a crime if an adult committed them. For instance, truancy (skipping school), running away from home, and incorrigibility (being out of the control of the parents) are status offenses. Instead of a complaint charging a criminal offense, juveniles are charged by petition. Any person, including a law enforcement officer, may petition the family court. This petition is a formal document alleging that the child is delinquent. It must allege facts that support the charge of delinquency, the name, age, and address of the juvenile, and the names and addresses of the juvenile's parents or guardians.
After the petition is filed, the child's parents must be made aware of the charges the child faces. The court will then set a date for the adjudicatory hearing, where a judge will decide if the child is guilty or not guilty of the alleged offenses. Depending on the offense, the child may be taken into custody (the equivalent of being arrested for adults). It is in the law enforcement officer's discretion whether to release a child to his or her parents or to detain the child. If the officer determines that it would be best to place the child outside the home, a Department of Juvenile Justice representative must try to place the child in an approved home, program, or facility, other than a secure juvenile detention facility, when appropriate and available.
Only certain children can be detained. If a child has committed a violent crime, had a deadly weapon, or no suitable alternative placement is found (and it is determined that the detention would be in the child's best interest or the public's best interest), then the child can be detained in a secure juvenile detention facility. A child 10 years old or younger may not be detained, and a child that is 11 or 12 may only be detained by an order from the family court.
Once detained, there are limitations on how long certain children may be detained. If a child has been taken into custody for a status offense, then the child can only be held for 24 hours, unless there was a previously issued court order that put the child on notice that failure to abide by the court's order would result in longer punishment. A child who has neglected a court order may not be imprisoned for more than 72 hours, excluding weekends and holidays.
If an officer has taken a child into custody, then the family court must hold a detention hearing within 48 hours of the time that the child was taken into custody (excluding weekends and holidays.) A reasonable effort must be taken to locate the child's parents or guardian, but if after the effort they cannot be found, then the hearing may occur in their absence. If the parents are not at the hearing, the court will appoint a guardian ad litem to represent the interests of the child. The child must be represented by an attorney unless he or she refuses the assistance of counsel after having met with an attorney at least once.
Any relevant evidence that is necessary regarding the detention of the child is admissible at the detention hearing. The representative from the Department of Juvenile Justice will report on the situation. At the conclusion of the detention hearing, the judge will make a determination of whether there is probable cause to support the petition, and whether it is necessary to further detain the juvenile.
A child who is detained may not be held more than 90 days unless a court determines that there are exceptional circumstances that require it to hold the child for longer. A child who has been detained may have another hearing within 10 days of the initial detention hearing, can have another hearing within 30 days of the 10 day hearing, and can have another hearing at any other time if there is a good reason to do so.
When a child is charged with an offense, the child and the child's parents go through an intake process. A case worker from the Department of Juvenile Justice interviews the child and the parents to inform them about the juvenile justice process, get releases signed for school and medical information, to get information on the background of the child, and to find out if the child or the parents need any services.
In certain cases, a child may be eligible for a diversion program. Upon completion of the program, the underlying charges are dismissed. These types of programs are typically available for first-time offenders, non-violent offenders, and children that have substance abuse problems.
If you have questions about your child's case, hire an attorney who understands the complex nature of juvenile cases. Only an attorney licensed in South Carolina with experience in juvenile cases can give you and your child quality legal advice.