Juvenile Law

Juvenile law is an area that can be confusing even to experienced criminal lawyers because it blends civil procedure and criminal law. In Juvenile cases, the terminology used and how the case proceeds to the penalties assessed is very different than an adult criminal case. In Texas, a person can be charged as a juvenile and face criminal charges in juvenile court for a criminal offense committed after his 10th birthday. Juvenile criminal charges can range from a Class C misdemeanor up to and including capital murder. So, a person who is at least 10 years old and under the age of 17 can be charged as juvenile. Once an individual turns 17, he is considered an adult for purposes of the adult criminal system, and so any charges would be handled in adult court. Although the criminal offenses are the same in both the juvenile and adult system, the procedure in handling the cases and the goals in sentencing are vastly different. Whether the juvenile is certified to stand trial as an adult or given probation, the goal in the juvenile system is to protect the public and rehabilitate the juvenile respondent.

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Juvenile Cases Compared To Adult Criminal Cases

To understand Juvenile cases, it helps to understand what the goal of the criminal juvenile system is. The Juvenile Justice Code states that it’s purpose is to “provide treatment, training, and rehabilitation that emphasizes the accountability and responsibility of both the parent and the child for the child’s conduct.” Rehabilitation of the child is the goal of the juvenile system. In an adult criminal case, the person charged is called a defendant. In a juvenile case, the child that is charged is referred to as the respondent.

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Juvenile Arrest and Detention

There are notable differences between the procedure for arresting a juvenile versus an adult for an alleged crime. A juvenile can be taken into custody by a law enforcement officer if there is probable cause to believe that the juvenile violated a criminal law, engaged in delinquent conduct, or violated a court ordered condition of probation. Delinquent conduct is defined in the Family Code section 51.03(b) as conduct other than a traffic offense that violates state law and is punishable by prison or jail time. There is no requirement that an officer obtain an arrest warrant as in an adult criminal case. The officer may obtain a Directive to Apprehend, which is the juvenile equivalent of an arrest warrant. When a juvenile is arrested, he must be taken “without unnecessary delay” to a juvenile processing office and his legal guardians must be promptly notified that he has been taken into custody and the reason why. Within 48 hours, including weekends and holidays, from the time the juvenile was taken into custody, a judge must conduct a detention hearing to determine whether the juvenile will be released or held in a juvenile facility until his court date. The juvenile’s legal guardian must be notified of the hearing. If a legal guardian cannot be located, the court will appoint a guardian ad litem for the juvenile during the detention hearing. Detention decisions are within the sole discretion of the judge or magistrate. There is no bail system in juvenile courts. The juvenile has a right to counsel at all detention hearings. The juvenile shall be released from detention unless the court finds that:

  • He is likely to abscond or be removed from the jurisdiction of the court;
  • Suitable supervision, care, or protection for him is not being provided by a parent, guardian, custodian, or other person;
  • He has no parent, guardian, custodian or other person able to return him to court when required;
  • He may be dangerous to himself or may threaten the safety of the public if released; or
  • He has previously been found to be a delinquent child or has previously been convicted of a penal offense punishable by a term in jail or prison and is likely to commit an offense if released.

A detention hearing must be held every 10 days, if a juvenile is detained, to determine if continued detention is still necessary. If a judge determines that continued detention is not warranted, the court may impose specific conditions to be adhered to while on release. In addition to the conditions set by the court relating to the juvenile, the court can also impose conditions on the parent or legal guardians to assist the juvenile in abiding by his conditions of release.

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Juvenile Charges

In an adult criminal case, charges are bought by either an “information” in misdemeanor cases or an “indictment” in felony cases. Criminal allegations in a juvenile case are brought by filing a “petition” in a court with jurisdiction over juvenile cases. The Family Code specifically outlines what is required to be pleaded in the juvenile petition. The juvenile, called the respondent, must be served with both the summons and the allegations in the petition filed by the State, also called the “petitioner”. The juvenile’s parents or guardians must also be served. If the juvenile/ respondent has not been personally served with a copy of the petition and summons, it is reversible error because the court will lack jurisdiction over the juvenile. A parent or guardian will waive service of the summons by voluntarily appearing at the court proceeding.

Juvenile cases are not presented to a grand jury for an indictment like in an adult felony case. The Family Code regulates the deadlines that prosecutors are under for filing a petition in a juvenile case. If the juvenile has been detained, the prosecutors only have 30 days from the initial detention hearing to file a petition alleging the juvenile has committed a capital felony, certain cases alleging possession of a controlled substance, or a first degree felony. If the prosecutors miss this deadline, the juvenile must be released from detention. For all other criminal offenses and probation violations, the petition must be filed within 15 days from the initial detention hearing.

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Unlike adult court, when the juvenile goes to court his parent, legal guardian or a court appointed guardian ad litem must go with him. If the juvenile maintains he is innocent of the charges, a judge or jury will decide if the allegations are “true” or “not true”. This is just like being charged in the adult system, but in the adult system the judge or jury decides if the defendant is guilty or not guilty. If the judge finds that the allegations are “true” the juvenile engaged in “delinquent conduct”, that finding will mean the juvenile is in need of rehabilitation.

If the juvenile decides to admit that the allegations in the petition are “true”, the judge, during the adjudication hearing, will explain to the juvenile and his parents or guardian what the allegations are, the consequences of the proceeding and the juvenile’s Miranda Warnings. If the prosecutor and the juvenile/respondent come to an agreement on the disposition of the case, the juvenile will, at the hearing, stipulate the allegations are “true”. In the adult system, the defendant would stipulate the allegations are true and enter a plea of “guilty.”  

One major difference between the juvenile system and the adult criminal system, is when the accused has the right to a jury trial during the sentencing phase. In the adult system, the accused always has the right to have a jury determine guilt or innocence, as do the prosecutors. In the juvenile system the juvenile/respondent enjoys this same right to have a jury determine if the allegations in the State’s petition are “true” or not. The prosecutors do not have that same right in the juvenile system. In the punishment phase, the juvenile does not have the right to a jury unless the prosecutors have filed a determinate petition.

If a judge or jury finds that it is “true” the juvenile engaged in delinquent conduct and is in need of rehabilitation, the parties move on to the disposition hearing before the judge. Again, the driving force in any juvenile case is the safety of the public and the rehabilitation of the child. Section 58.003 of the Texas Family Code sets out the procedure and requirements for juveniles to have their criminal records sealed.

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Although the crimes alleged in a juvenile petition may be the same as ones alleged in an adult  felony indictment, the punishment ranges differ greatly. With the exception of a determinate petition, there is no minimum or maximum sentence in the juvenile system. If the prosecution feels that the facts of a particular offense warrant a more severe punishment, they have two options in felony cases. First, the prosecutors can seek a determinate sentence, which allows for the punishment to ultimately be transferred to adult court or adult prison. The other option is to ask the court to waive it’s jurisdiction over the juvenile and certify the juvenile as an adult. The difference between these two options is that a determinate sentence remains in juvenile court, with the possibility of a sentence being transferred to the adult system (probation or prison when the juvenile becomes an adult). When a juvenile is certified to stand trial as an adult, the juvenile and his case are transferred to the adult system prior to adjudication. The process of determinate sentencing and process of certifying a child as an adult are far more complex than is written in this article. The purpose of this article is simply to give you an overview and understanding of how the juvenile system works.

Juvenile cases can be extremely complex and confusing for many criminal defense lawyers. They can be particularly stressful and challenging for parents and children to navigate both emotionally and legally. It is essential to find a qualified lawyer who can guide you through this process and handle the legal issues in your child’s juvenile criminal case. 

Please do not attempt to handle a juvenile case alone. Contact Matt Bingham, our experienced juvenile lawyer in Tyler, TX, to schedule a consultation. He will sit with you and your child and help you understand the best way to move forward.