Juvenile law and procedure in Texas is a combination of laws drawn from several areas. Juvenile cases are significantly different from adult criminal cases. It is also important to note that a juvenile case is actually a civil proceeding whereas an adult criminal defendant is charged in a criminal proceeding. Juvenile law is a hybrid of civil and criminal law. While the actual charges against a juvenile are brought by means of a civil lawsuit, the juvenile offender is given virtually the same constitutional rights, privileges and protections that an adult criminal defendant possesses. The juvenile system has its own set of terminology and processes that differ drastically from its adult counterpart.
The original Title III of the Texas Family Code was written in 1973 and has been amended numerous times over the years. The single most significant revision to juvenile law and procedure came in 1995 during the 74th Texas Legislature where juvenile justice reform was a major issue. Voluminous changes in the juvenile justice system resulted, most of those dealing specifically with violent and habitual juvenile offenders.
Texas juvenile law is governed primarily by Title III of the Texas Family Code entitled the “Juvenile Justice Code”. The main goals of the juvenile justice system in Texas, as mandated by TEX. FAM. CODE ANN. ‘ 51.01 (Vernon 1996), are to provide for the safety and protection of the public, promote the concept of punishment and accountability, and provide treatment and rehabilitation of the juvenile offender in the community.
The Department is responsible for preparing all juvenile hearings which include: pre-conference and intake, detention hearings, adjudication hearings, disposition hearings, motion to modify hearings, certification/transfer to adult status hearings and determinate sentencing hearings.
Juvenile Court Intake. Unlike the adult system where adult probation officers begin their involvement with the offender after the court disposes of the case, juvenile probation officers begin dealing with the juvenile offender immediately upon receipt of a referral (offense) from law enforcement or other referral sources (public, school, social service agencies, etc). The juvenile probation department functions as the intake unit for the juvenile court in most Texas counties. They screen the cases to determine if probable cause exists and they make decisions on whether informal or formal court proceedings are needed. Depending on the particular intake referral plan being utilized in the county, the probation department’s authority to make these intake decisions may be limited.
Statutory Intake Referral Plan. The Family Code provides a statutory default intake referral plan that mandates certain offenses be sent to the juvenile prosecutor for his or her review to determine whether informal or formal court proceedings are merited. These offenses include all felony offenses or misdemeanor offenses involving violence to a person or the use or possession of a firearm, illegal knife, or club. If a county is following the statutory default plan, the juvenile probation department does not have the authority to dispose of cases in these categories.
Disposition Without Referral To Court. Law enforcement officers may divert juvenile cases from formal court proceedings or informal proceedings with juvenile probation departments by sending the child to a first offender program or other informal disposition, if available in the local community.
Informal Proceedings. Informal proceedings include supervisory caution and deferred prosecution. These type of dispositions are normally reserved for less serious offenses.
a. Supervisory Caution. A supervisory caution is a disposition where the probation department simply provides for counseling with the child regarding the illegal conduct and refers the child and family to any needed social services. This disposition is typically reserved for first time offenders committing very minor offenses.
b. Deferred Prosecution. Deferred prosecution is basically an alternative to seeking a formal adjudication of delinquent conduct or conduct indicating a need for supervision. Deferred prosecution is essentially a six-month period of voluntary probation that is entered into by the child and his parents. If the child violates the terms of the probation, the state may elect to proceed with formal court adjudication. The juvenile prosecutor must consent to any deferred prosecution disposition for any child accused of committing a felony offense.
Formal Court Proceedings. The formal disposition options that are available for juvenile offenders depend primarily on the procedural posture of the case. This is a decision that is made by the prosecutor. Depending on the particular circumstances and facts of the case, the prosecutor may ask the juvenile court to certify the juvenile to stand trial as an adult. Alternatively, the prosecutor may elect to proceed with either determinate sentencing or a normal delinquency or CINS proceeding. The various alternatives are discussed individually below.
a. Certification as an Adult. For many serious or chronic felony offenders, certification as an adult is deemed to be the most appropriate option. If a child is certified to stand trial as an adult, the child faces the same range of punishment that an adult would face for the same crime, except that a juvenile cannot receive the death penalty for an offense committed before turning 17 years of age. A child who was 14 at the time of commission of the offense may be certified for the following serious offenses: capital felonies, aggravated controlled substance felonies, or first degree felonies. For all other felonies, the child must have been age 15 at the time of the commission of the offense.
If a juvenile offender was previously certified to stand trial as an adult and that child then subsequently commits another felony offense, the prosecutor may choose to again certify the child. If the prosecutor elects this option and proves the child was indeed convicted in the previous case, the juvenile court judge must certify the child. This concept, introduced in 1995, is commonly referred to as “once certified, always certified.”
b. Determinate Sentencing. Effective September 1, 1987, legislation was enacted to deal with violent offenses committed by juveniles under the minimum certification age of 15. For many juveniles, the alternatives of probation or commitment to the Texas Youth Commission (discussed below) were insufficient. For example, before the determinate sentencing law was enacted, the juvenile system could respond to a capital murder committed by a child just before his 15th birthday with a maximum of only 6 years of control over him. Determinate sentencing was dramatically expanded during the legislative session in 1995. If a prosecutor chooses to invoke the option of determinate sentencing, the grand jury must approve the petition charging the juvenile with the offense. If the court or jury finds at the conclusion of an adjudication hearing that the child committed one of the specified offenses, the child may be committed to the Texas Youth Commission with a possible transfer to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) for up to 40 years, depending on the offense. A child is eligible for a determinate sentence if the child commits any of the following serious offenses: murder; capital murder; attempted capital murder; aggravated kidnapping; aggravated sexual assault; sexual assault; aggravated assault; aggravated robbery; injury to child, elderly individual, or disabled individual (excluding state jail felony); arson with bodily injury or death; aggravated controlled substance offenses; criminal solicitation; indecency with a child; criminal solicitation of a minor; and criminal attempt of murder or any “3g offense”, which includes murder, capital murder, indecency with a child, aggravated kidnapping, aggravated sexual assault, aggravated robbery, sexual assault, and drug free zone enhanced controlled substance offenses. The law also provides a child may receive a determinate sentence for habitual felony conduct.