When a Child Breaks The Law in Texas
A child who breaks the law in Texas may enter a complex
world of procedures, places and people called the juvenile justice system.
In Texas the ages of juvenile justice jurisdiction are 10
through 16. The handling of juveniles is strictly regulated by state law, but juvenile
probation is locally administered at the county level.
This year, more than 130,000 Texas children picked up by law
enforcement officers will enter the juvenile justice system.
For minor violations, the police may simply warn the child
and parents. However, when further action is needed to protect the public or the child, or
to prevent future offenses, the case is forwarded to local juvenile probation officials.
All juveniles with alleged delinquent offenses that are
crimes punishable by jail for adults are fingerprinted and entered into a statewide
central repository. Their criminal history record may then be accessed by law enforcement
and juvenile justice agencies throughout Texas.
Intake - Front Door to the System
Children arrive at the juvenile
probation intake unit around the clock. They may be sick, intoxicated, injured, depressed
or violent. Critical decisions must be made on the spot.
Intake officers are skilled in crisis intervention,
information gathering and assessment. They resolve some cases through counseling and refer
others to more appropriate social agencies. If charges are to be filed in court, intake
makes the initial decision about where the child will stay pending judicial proceedings.
Many are safely released to parents or guardians but others must be held in secure
detention or in a shelter.
Who Are These Children?
Children who break the law come from
all social, racial and economic groups. Nearly half are between 14 and 15 years of age,
and about three-fourths are male.
Many are charged with minor offenses or "status
offenses" such as truancy or running away from home. However, one-third or more are
serious offenders who may have committed crimes such as burglary, assault or murder.
Substance abuse, family violence and school problems are common.
Juvenile detention centers are
short-term, secure facilities. Operated by either local juvenile probation departments or
private companies, they are designed to protect the community and the child, and to assure
the childs appearance in court.
At intervals set by law, children in detention have
detention hearings where a judge must be shown there is good cause to hold them. Children
are not detained without due process of law. The more than 55 detention centers in Texas
offer top quality custodial care, crisis intervention, counseling, education and many
Waiting for Court
When charges are filed against a
child, a probation officer initiates a court investigation.
After making a detailed assessment of the childs
behavior, home, school and social relationships, the officer writes a social history
report to assist the judge in deciding on a plan for the childs future.
Going to Court
In the court proceeding, called an adjudication hearing, the
child, family and the childs attorney, appear before a judge or jury that will
decide if the child committed a delinquent act or conduct indicating a need for
supervision. If the child is adjudicated for the offense, the judge orders a
"disposition" -- a plan to protect the public and to redirect the child toward a
Dispositions in most counties are based on "progressive
sanctions" guidelines aiming to provide appropriate consequences and outcomes for
juvenile offenders. The guidelines provide a continuum of progressive steps designed to
balance public protection, offender accountability and rehabilitation.
What Can the Judge Decide?
Juvenile court judges have many
options from outright dismissal to long-term confinement in a correctional facility. For
felony offenses, a youth 14 or older can be "certified" to stand trial in the
adult criminal courts.
For other serious offenders, the Determinate Sentencing Law
allows a juvenile to be confined up to 40 years, first in a Texas Youth Commission facility, followed by an
optional court transfer to prison.
For less serious offenders who require confinement, the
judge may order an indeterminate commitment to the Texas Youth Commission where the child
may be held until his or her 19th birthday.
In most cases, however, the judge orders some form of
probation supervision in the community, or placement in a private, state or local
residential treatment facility.
A Second Chance
Some of the youngest, least serious offenders get a second
chance to prove to the court that no further action is needed to prevent future illegal
activity. Those who succeed in this six-month "Deferred Prosecution" program
avoid the adjudication process and continued involvement with authorities.
Probation - The Most Used Option
Of all the courts choices,
probation supervision is most commonly used. Because children remain in their homes and
schools, probation is the least costly, least disruptive course of action.
The court-ordered rules of probation demand school
attendance, good conduct, curfews and participation in specified programs, including
community service and financial restitution. Probation officers enforce these rules while
they help the child and family achieve positive change.
Parents are expected to participate in their childs
probation program. As the source of social, emotional and financial support, the family is
key to a successful probation outcome. Family counseling, parent training and support
groups help parents meet the challenge of raising teenagers today.
Some children must be removed from
their homes due to uncontrolled behavior, drug addiction, mental illness or an inadequate
home environment. Children are removed from their homes only as a last resort to protect
the public, to provide needed supervision and treatment, and to prevent future lawless
The child who succeeds on probation,
either at home or in an institution, gets a fresh start. The Texas juvenile justice system
treats children with confidentiality and concern. Juvenile case records are not made
Probation practitioners work hard to see that children
leaving their care and custody are better equipped to build productive, law-abiding
futures. Because all children have the potential for good, they deserve our best efforts
in their behalf.
To Learn More
To learn more about juvenile justice in your
community and how you can help, contact your juvenile