In the justice system, there is one path for adult offenders and another for juvenile offenders. The adult system focuses on deterrence, retribution, punishment, and, to a lesser extent, rehabilitation. The juvenile system, however, is focused exclusively on providing rehabilitation and guidance to the offending juvenile with hopes of decreasing the chance of any future infractions.
Along those lines, generally speaking, the system allows many juveniles to serve sentences that do not include incarceration. Even when a sentence does include incarceration, it is not typically in an adult jail, but rather in a "youth camp" or "juvenile hall." Sentences in the juvenile justice system tend to be centered around community service, probation, removal from unsafe environments, etc.
However, there are a few ways that a juvenile aged 14 or older might end up in the adult criminal justice system. First, the California legislature has determined that there are some crimes for which even juveniles should be tried as adults. These are generally very serious crimes that may carry long prison sentences with them. For example, a juvenile charged with murder will almost certainly be "directly filed" into adult court. This means that the juvenile offender will never appear before a juvenile judge but instead will go immediately to adult court. The decision whether or not to "direct file" a juvenile offender rests solely with the prosecutor.
Second, if a juvenile is charged with one of several aggravated offenses, and has committed a prior offense, the case is required to go straight to the adult system.
Third, the prosecutor can file for a juvenile fitness hearing to determine whether the juvenile defendant is suitable for rehabilitation. In this hearing, the judge will consider several factors, including:
1. The degree of criminal sophistication exhibited by the juvenile;
2. Whether the juvenile offender can be rehabilitated before juvenile court jurisdiction expires;
3. The juvenile's previous delinquent history;
4. The success of previous attempts by juvenile court to rehabilitate the juvenile; and
5. The circumstances and gravity of the offenses alleged to have been committed by the juvenile.
If, after considering these factors, the judge believes that the juvenile offender is not amenable to rehabilitation, then the juvenile offender can be transferred to adult court and tried as an adult.
Once a juvenile is in adult court, there are only very few limitations on the sentence that the juvenile can receive. For the most part the juvenile will be sentenced in the same way an adult would be sentenced.