Overview of the Juvenile Justice System in Texas

Often, people think of the juvenile system as a penal system similar to that of adults, but for children. While there are similarities between the two, there are also differences. The adult system focuses on public safety and punishment for criminal conduct. While public safety and holding juveniles accountable for their actions are certainly considerations, the juvenile correctional system places an emphasis on rehabilitation. Even when it is necessary to incarcerate youth, the setting is not punitive but rather is protective and designed to educate youth about discipline, values, and work ethics thus guiding them toward becoming productive citizens.

In most cases, juvenile records are sealed so that youth are given a second chance at life without the stigma of having been in trouble with the law. Some exceptions include youth who have to register as sex offenders and youth who have committed serious enough offenses that require them to complete their sentences in the adult system. 

Important Definitions

A “juvenile” is a person who was at least 10 years old but not yet 17 at the time he or she committed an act defined as “delinquent conduct” or “conduct in need of supervision.”

“Delinquent conduct” is generally conduct that, if committed by an adult, could result in imprisonment or confinement in jail.

“Conduct in need of supervision” is generally conduct that, if committed by an adult, could result in only a fine or conduct that is not a violation if committed by an adult, such as truancy or running away from home. It is referred to as a CINS violation.

“Adjudication” is a finding that a youth has engaged in delinquent or CINS conduct. It is similar to a “conviction” in adult court.

Referral to Juvenile Court and Possible Dispositions

A juvenile who engages in delinquent conduct or commits a CINS violation can be referred to juvenile court, where several things can happen. The juvenile can be dealt with informally and returned home.

If the county decides to charge the juvenile with delinquent conduct, the juvenile is afforded the same legal rights as an adult charged with a crime. In certain circumstances, the county can request to have a youth certified as an adult. If such is granted, the person is considered an adult for criminal purposes and will no longer be in the juvenile justice system. The rest of this overview does not apply to persons certified as adults.

If the juvenile is “adjudicated” for delinquent conduct, there are several possible disposition options, or outcomes, as follows:

  1. The juvenile may be placed on probation; or
  2. The juvenile may be sent to the Texas Juvenile Justice Department with an indeterminate sentence (only felony offenses); or
  3. The juvenile may be sent to the Texas Juvenile Justice Department with a determinate sentence (only certain offenses).

A juvenile who is placed on probation (and not sent to TJJD) must be discharged from the probation by the time he or she turns 18.

A juvenile sent to TJJD with an indeterminate sentence must be discharged by the time he or she turns 19.

A juvenile sent to TJJD with a determinate sentence may be transferred to adult prison depending on his or her behavior and progress in TJJD programs.

The Juvenile Justice System’s Backbone: County Probation Departments & Courts

In Texas, individual counties provide services to all youth referred to the juvenile courts. Counties, through their local district or county attorney’s offices, prosecute juvenile cases. County juvenile probation departments handle most of the sanctions and therapeutic interventions the courts may impose.

State law requires each county to have a juvenile board. Some of these boards govern multiple counties. Each board is responsible for overseeing the operation of the juvenile probation system in that county. This includes designating juvenile judges, appointing the chief juvenile probation officer and setting the policy and budget for the juvenile probation department.

State Agencies Involved in the Juvenile Justice System

TJJD works in partnership with local juvenile boards and juvenile probation departments to support and enhance juvenile probation services throughout the state by providing funding, technical assistance, and training; establishing and enforcing standards; collecting, analyzing and disseminating information; and facilitating communications between state and local entities. TJJD also provides oversight of county-operated detention facilities.

TJJD manages state-operated secure facilities and halfway houses to provide treatment services to those youth who have chronic delinquency problems and who have exhausted their options in the county. Additionally, youth who have committed the most serious offenses requiring specialized treatment services that counties are not equipped to provide are also likely to be committed to TJJD.

The Progressive Sanctions and Interventions Model

Each youth, depending on his or her offense and history, plus a number of other factors, has a unique journey through the juvenile justice system. However, in general, the progressive sanctions and interventions model is designed to start with the least amount of intervention or sanctions possible, progressively getting more serious and intensive as necessary to help juveniles learn to become productive, law-abiding citizens. The ultimate goal is to keep juveniles from entering the adult prison system.

On the spectrum of services, law enforcement and county juvenile probation departments, under the guidance and direction of TJJD, serve vital front-line roles. TJJD serves as a critical last attempt to reach the most serious cases. About 95 percent of youth committed to TJJD have already failed at a county-level intervention. The remainder of TJJD’s youth committed serious offenses such as capital murder, armed robbery, or aggravated sexual assault and were sent directly to the agency’s care.

The Numbers

TJJD compiles detailed annual statistical reports regarding juvenile crime throughout the state. In a given year, more than 100,000 juveniles are arrested in Texas or referred to the juvenile probation system. Local county juvenile justice systems provide excellent services and are successful in most cases. The most serious or chronic 1,500 to 2,000 youth offenders are committed annually to TJJD. Reform measures enacted in 2007, reduced the number of new commitments to TJJD by limiting commitments to youth adjudicated delinquent only for felony-level offenses.

You can view detailed information about TJJD statistics in the Research & Data section of the TJJD website.