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My Teen Was Arrested – Is Her Life Over?

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT Meet The Team >

Every parent of teenagers knows adolescence can be a turbulent time. Most teenagers go through a period when they push boundaries, test limits, and experiment with risky behaviors. Not all of them are rebellious, but almost all of them dabble in things they know they shouldn’t. Parents, especially in the 21st century, tend to tolerate a little wildness in their teenagers. They expect it, and spend the pre-teen years savoring the innocence and preparing for the possible moodiness, door slamming, and ill-advised decisions to come. Secretly, many enjoy seeing their teenagers explore the world and skirt the edges of what’s appropriate and what’s foolish. They watch with a mixture of excitement, anticipation, and dread as their growing young adults go on first dates, get driver’s licenses, go to parties, proms, and occasionally get in trouble. It’s all natural, and most of it is harmless fun.

But as a parent, all the fun and games stop when police get involved. There’s absolutely nothing funny about your teen getting arrested – no matter what the crime, no matter what the circumstance. Once it happens, you lose a level of control you’re accustomed to. One moment, you have the ability to protect your child and have final say over everything that happens in their lives. The next, that control and that protective status can vanish.

It’s scary, and it should be.

California Juvenile Arrest: What Happens to My Teen?

Before we talk about how to get your teen back on track in the event they do get arrested, we’ll take a look at what can happen to an adolescent in the event of an arrest. Adolescents are defined by California law as juveniles. When arrested, juveniles may be referred to Juvenile Court and then, if convicted of a crime, they may be turned over to the California Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ). The California-based Youth Law Center is an excellent resource for at-risk youth. For their overview of how a teen might reach juvenile court and the juvenile justice system, click here.

It might not ever reach that point, however – even if your teenager is arrested. When a teen is arrested by a police officer who suspects the teen has committed a crime, the officer has several options:

  1. They can issue a warning and release the teen.
  2. They can send the teen to a local diversion service, such as a probation department or other public or private agency authorized by the state to provide diversion services.
  3. They can issue a citation and require the teen to appear in juvenile court.
  4. They can take the teen directly to juvenile hall and refer them to the DJJ.

The action of the officer at the time of the arrest and what happens next always depends on three factors:

  1. The nature of the crime. Is it a status offense or criminal offense? Status offenses are things like truancy, curfew violations, underage drinking, or any other behaviors that are only illegal because the teen is a minor. Criminal offenses are actions that are illegal for anyone of any age.
  2. The severity of the crime. Is it a misdemeanor or felony? Misdemeanors are things like petty theft, possession of small amounts of banned substances, vandalism, and malicious mischief. Felonies are serious crimes such as murder, rape, and grand theft auto.
  3. The arrest record of the teen. Repeat offenders face more serious consequences than first time offenders.

Some minors can be tried as adults if the crimes are serious enough. If convicted, they can be sent to adult prison to serve sentences with adult offenders – a nightmare scenario no parent wants to imagine. For the purposes of this article, we’ll stick to first-time offenses that don’t meet the criteria for referral to the adult justice system, such as first-time drug possession (small amounts), underage drinking, or petty theft, i.e shoplifting.

California Juvenile Arrest: Statistics

The first piece of good news is that most teenagers arrested in California don’t end up in jail. The second piece of good news is that for less-serious offenses – meaning those for which the punishment does not extend into adulthood – the record of the offense can be officially expunged. This means it will not show up on future background searches related to any of the following:

  • College applications
  • Scholarship applications
  • Job applications
  • Rental applications
  • Loan applications

Therein lies the answer to the terrifying question posed in the title of this article. The short answer is this:

“No, your teenager’s life is not over if they get arrested.”

A report released by The Office of the Attorney General and the California Department of Justice, Juvenile Justice in the State of California, details the following statistics for the year 2015 (skip to the end of these bullets for a quick summary of the information):

  • 71, 923 juvenile arrests occurred
  • 18% of those resulted in counseling and release, with no further action taken
  • 3% were turned over to the adult system
  • 80% were referred to Probation Services
    • 8% of those referred to Probation Services were closed upon intake, with no further action taken
    • 5 % received informal probation
    • 51% were referred to Juvenile Court
      • 7 % of cases referred were dismissed
      • 7% of cases referred resulted in informal probation or other non-disruptive consequences
      • 64% became wards of the court
        • 53% of those served their probation in their own home
        • 2 % spent time in a secure county facility such as a probation camp
        • 8 % served time in juvenile detention or other facility
      • 18% of those resulted in counseling and release, with no further action taken
      • 3% were turned over to the adult system

That’s a lot of numbers all in one series of bullet points – but we want you to have credible facts backed up by numbers. If you skipped them, here’s the summary:

Over half the teens arrested in 2015 in California didn’t end up in jail.

They ended up back at home. 

How To Get Your Teen Back On Track

While some lucky teens have their charges dismissed very quickly, others go through weeks or months of hearings, court dispositions, and other legal proceedings. Even when the end result is probation served from home, community service, or mandatory treatment in an alcohol or drug rehab center, as opposed to some form of detention, it’s a harrowing experience for everyone involved. Your teenager will get an up-close and personal view of how the system works. They’ll probably watch kids just like them get removed from the courtroom in handcuffs, sentenced to some very hard time.

This experience alone should be enough to serve as a wake-up call for your teenager. It should shock some sense into them, and open their eyes to the seriousness of what they did. They’ll learn that if things had gone a little bit differently – if someone in the car when they got busted for smoking pot was in possession of a firearm, or there was a DUI accident resulting in death or serious injury – they could have ended up in adult prison. They’ll also be told by judges and prosecutors, in no uncertain terms, that the next time they won’t get off so easy. A repeat offense can result in adult jail, juvenile detention, or probation camps. Some of those convictions can be expunged from the record at the age of eighteen, and others can’t. Those that can’t will have serious, long-term consequences that can stay with them their entire lives.

Communication is Key

While they’re dealing with the emotional fallout of a near-miss or the day-to-day parameters of their probation, the most important thing you can do as a parent is communicate, communicate, and communicate some more. Resist the urge to speak or act in anger. Control the impulse to lecture or otherwise harangue your child for what they’ve done. That’s likely to backfire. Besides – police officers, judges, prosecutors, and probations officers will do plenty of that without your help.

What’s productive for you and your child is to discover – together –  the underlying cause of the situation. You need to find out what caused the behavior that got them arrested in the first place. Your child may have developed an alcohol or substance use disorder which impaired their judgment. They may be harboring anger about a divorce or other domestic situation and acting out because they don’t know how to deal with their powerful and uncomfortable emotions. They may have experienced a trauma you don’t know about. They may have developed a mental health or mood disorder which causes them to make poor decisions.

Get Professional Help

In all the cases just mentioned, communication is the essential first step. Once you get to the root of things, the next step is to seek professional help. Your job as a parent is to offer love, support, and advice – but you may not be qualified to help a teenager deal with addictions, trauma, or serious mental health disorders. That’s the job of psychiatrists, therapists, and addiction counselors. If any of these things caused the behavior that led to the arrest, your teen is likely repeat that behavior unless they resolve the underlying issues. You can use this significant event to get your child the help they need and back on track. Hopefully, years from now, both of you will be able to look back on the arrest as a bump in the road that was terrifying at the time, but led to positive changes that changed the course of your lives for the better.

For help seeking treatment for your teenager, please consult these resources:

The Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist finder  provided by the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse website for teens.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration official website.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness official website.

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

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