Venturing Into The Texas Juvenile Justice System

Few parents are prepared for a phone call informing them that their child is being held in detention for allegedly committing a criminal offense. Most parents know very little about the workings of the Texas juvenile justice system even though more than 100,000 children and teenagers go through it each year.

Unlike adult criminal courts that emphasize punishment of offenders, the stated purpose of juvenile courts is rehabilitation. The state’s emphasis on helping juvenile offenders become law-abiding adults must be tempered by the realization that each year up to 2,000 juveniles serve sentences in state detention facilities. If you are a parent or guardian, it is important to understand how the juvenile justice system works, and why your child needs skilled legal representation to be best served by it.

Juveniles under Texas law

Children who are at least 10 years of age and have not yet reached their 17th birthday are juveniles under Texas law. If they commit violations of criminal laws that would otherwise result in an adult being prosecuted in criminal court, juvenile offenders’ cases are heard by a judge in a juvenile court.

Juveniles are charged with delinquent conduct in juvenile court if they commit an act violating state or federal criminal laws for which an adult could be sentenced to confinement in a jail or prison. Children engaging in any of the following forms of conduct may be charged, indicating a need for supervision:

  • Committing a misdemeanor for which the adult penalty would be only a fine.
  • Running away from home without parental consent.
  • Violation of local ordinances or state law prohibiting inhalation of paint or adhesive vapors.
  • Continued violation of school district rules of conduct following the individual being expelled from school.

Children charged in juvenile court must be accompanied by their parent or guardian when they appear in court.

Juvenile court

Some aspects of the juvenile justice system have similarities to the process and procedures in the adult criminal courts, but the terminology is different. For example, adults may plead not guilty and have their cases proceed to trial. Juvenile offenders who deny the allegations made against them are entitled to an adjudication hearing at which the prosecution must prove the child committed the offense.

Texas grants juveniles the right to have allegations against them decided by a jury, but the right to a hearing in front of a jury is a right granted only to the child. The prosecution does not have the right to demand a hearing with a jury.

If a child admits to the allegations or they are established after a hearing, the case proceeds to a disposition phase, which is equivalent to the sentencing phase of a criminal case in adult courts. Judges in juvenile court attempt to create a disposition plan that will rehabilitate the child in order to prevent the child from engaging in similar conduct in the future. Some of the options available to a judge include:

  • Probation: The child is allowed to remain at home under the supervision of a probation officer. While on probation, the court sets conditions the child must obey, such as mandatory counseling.
  • Detention: Juvenile offenders committing serious criminal offenses, or those with a prior record of criminal conduct, can be confined to a county juvenile detention facility or to a facility operated by the Texas Juvenile Justice Department.
  • Drug Court: Juveniles committing drug-related offenses could have their cases heard in juvenile drug courts where the court’s sentencing aims to educate the individual about the dangers of drug use and offer treatment programs where needed.

Although the emphasis is on rehabilitation, children charged with committing offenses in juvenile courts need experienced and skilled legal representation. This is especially true when the child has committed a serious felony offense or a capital offense, such as murder. The law allows prosecutors to ask for the removal of these types of cases to adult criminal court where the children as young as 14 years of age can be treated as adults.

Speak to an Austin juvenile defense lawyer

The best way to understand the juvenile justice system and knowing your child’s rights are being protected is by retaining the services of Austin juvenile defense lawyer Rick Cofer. Contact him today to schedule a consultation by calling (512) 200-3801.