When Are Teenagers Tried As Adults In Texas?

It’s safe to say that most people in Austin are familiar with the criminal courts and the criminal justice system based upon what they see portrayed in TV shows and in the movies. What you might not be aware of is a second justice system created to handle cases involving children and teenagers whose behavior violates Texas criminal laws. Juvenile courts focus on maintaining public safety with an emphasis on rehabilitating the young individuals who violate laws rather than punishing them through adult criminal courts. There are, however, circumstances under which a teenager could be treated as an adult.

How is a “juvenile” defined under Texas law?

“Juveniles” are defined under Texas law as being at least 10 but not yet 17 years of age. The upper age limit for classifying someone as a juvenile may create some confusion because many states have laws defining an adult as someone who is 18 years old. Texas is not one of them, so if your child commits a crime after turning 17 years old, Texas criminal laws and its adult court system will apply.

Assuming the person meets the age definition of a juvenile, the second criteria for having a case heard in the juvenile courts is that the individual must be accused of engaging in delinquent conduct or in conduct exhibiting a need of supervision. Delinquent conduct is behavior the law designates as criminal in nature in that it violates Texas criminal laws with confinement to jail or prison as potential penalties if the person is adjudicated delinquent. “Conduct in need of supervision” would be unlawful behavior that might be punished with a fine if committed by an adult. It also includes acts specific to children and teenagers, including failing to attend school and running away from home.

The age at which someone is treated as an adult in Texas could be changing. In April 2017, the Texas House of Representatives passed a “Raise the Age” bill to increase the age of juvenile offenders to include anyone who had not reached 18 years of age. However, in May 2017 the Texas Senate opted to require a two-year study before considering whether or not to enact the bill. The $35 million estimated cost of the change has been raised as a serious concern. Others have argued that raising the age would put too much strain on the already overburdened juvenile justice system by having the effect of making more teenagers eligible to have their cases heard in juvenile courts. With a new legislative session starting in January 2019, only time will tell if “Raise the Age” becomes law, but there’s definite interest to amend the Texas definition of a juvenile to conform to other states.

Criteria for Treating a Teenager as an Adult Offender: Juvenile Waiver

The judges who preside over cases in the Texas juvenile court system may decide to try a juvenile younger than seventeen as an adult if the individual’s conduct falls into one of the following categories:

  • Violent felony offenses
  • Felony drug offenses
  • Pattern of behavior as a habitual offender

A juvenile who has been through the juvenile court system and has not responded to rehabilitation efforts could also have the case heard as an adult. When a judge decides a juvenile who is at least 14 years old should be tried as an adult, this is called a “certification” or “juvenile waiver” because the judge is waiving the juvenile court’s jurisdiction over the child.

When a Case is Transferred from Juvenile Court to Adult Criminal Court

A child certified to face charges as an adult is subject to the same procedures and mostly the same penalties faced by adults who commit serious crimes. Before an order is made to transfer jurisdiction from the juvenile court to adult court, an investigation must be completed and the results made available to the juvenile court judge who will be making the decision about the waiver of juvenile court jurisdiction.

A transfer hearing must be held to consider whether the results of psychological evaluations and other factors and equities warrant treating the child as an adult. An attorney defending a teenager in a juvenile certification hearing may challenge evidence supporting the following factors that judges take into consideration in transferring a case to criminal court:

  • The seriousness of the offense and whether it targeted a person
  • The maturity of the child
  • Previous contacts between the juvenile court system and the child
  • The likelihood of success of rehabilitation efforts by the juvenile court

If at all possible, you’ll want to help your child avoid getting an adult criminal record that could significantly impact his or her life, not only in the short term but for decades to come. An adult criminal record can prevent a person from qualifying for a rental if a potential landlord runs a criminal background check. The same is true when applying for a job. Many employers routinely run a criminal background check before they hire a new applicant for a job. Some professional licenses are difficult or even impossible to obtain with a criminal record. Right out of high school, a criminal record of any kind can be disqualifying for college scholarships or eligibility to play on college sports teams.

A criminal record can be costly to parents. It can make your car insurance premiums cost more or put you in a higher risk bracket when applying for a home loan. Over the years, this can add up to thousands of dollars, even tens of thousands of dollars. An experienced attorney might be able to get a child or teenager’s criminal record sealed or expunged to avoid these types of ongoing personal and financial penalties.

A Juvenile Defense Lawyer Could Help

Parents want what is best for their children particularly when the outcome could affect them for the rest of their lives. It is essential for a child or teenager confronted with juvenile court proceedings to be represented by an attorney who is thoroughly familiar with the rules and procedures unique to the juvenile courts. If your child has been taken into custody or summoned to appear in juvenile court, contact Austin attorney Rick Cofer for a consultation by calling (512) 200-3801.