How does juvenile court differ from adult court?
Cases involving children between the ages of 10 and 17 are handled in the Texas Juvenile Courts. These cases are “civil” cases rather than criminal cases; however, certain rules and aspects of criminal law are applied to the juvenile. Juveniles are not “found guilty” but instead are “adjudicated to have engaged in delinquent conduct”. Also, juvenile offenders are not subject to being released on “bond” but are detained or released depending upon the circumstances. Finally, punishment for a juvenile is based upon levels and guidelines, not necessarily upon the offense.
Because the juvenile proceedings involve both a civil aspect and a criminal aspect, you should hire a lawyer that practices and focuses on juvenile law. I have devoted a significant portion of my practice to juvenile law and is well trained in both juvenile and criminal law.
The police say my child is being charged with a crime, what is going to happen?
Often juveniles are taken into custody by the police. In some cases, the police will release the child to a parent or guardian. When this happens, the parents are simply told their child is being charged but they can take the child home. During the next few days or weeks, the police are sending their information to the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office. Once the Prosecuting Attorney receives the information, a petition is filed with the juvenile courts. After the petition is filed, the child and his parents are “served” with paperwork to appear in court on a particular day. Papers are served or delivered to you by a Deputy Constable who usually will come to your home.
Also the juvenile probation department begins their process. The probation department is responsible for gathering information about your child and your family and preparing a report for the court. In most cases, a probation officer will contact you or your child to discuss his situation. Often, the probation department will contact you even before the petition is filed with the court.
It is important that you and your child talk with his or her juvenile defense lawyer prior to speaking with the probation department. Although you will want to be cooperative with the probation department, you must be careful to protect your child’s rights. Remember, all information provided to the probation department may end up in the report that is ultimately given to the prosecutor and the court for consideration.
Does my child need to have a lawyer?
Children in the juvenile justice system must be represented by a lawyer during most proceedings. Because juvenile proceedings are a combination of civil and criminal rules and procedure, you should hire a lawyer who practices in juvenile court and understands the juvenile system.
In some cases, the judge will appoint a juvenile defense lawyer for the child and require the parents to reimburse the county for the court-appointed lawyer.
What happens when I go to court?
Your first court setting is usually called the “arraignment.” This is an opportunity for your lawyer to gather information about your case by reviewing the Prosecuting Attorney’s file. Texas law generally requires the State of Texas to allow defense attorneys to view the police report and other evidence associated with a case. Also, at this time, the Prosecuting Attorney may make a plea offer in an attempt to “plea-bargain” the case and avoid a trial.
Also at this setting, your attorney will be able to review the court probation report related to your case. The probation department has likely already contacted your family and your school to obtain information about your behavior and performance at home and at school. It is important that the information contained in this report is accurate as it will be relied upon by the court for disposition or punishment purposes.
Sometimes, this setting will result in a reset of your case to a future date. This may be necessary so that your juvenile defense lawyer can gather additional information, talk to witnesses, and test the state’s case and evidence. Your attorney will be able to advise you on whether or not you should reset your case. I strive to complete your case with as few number of court appearances as necessary, without sacrificing your rights.
What is going to happen to me if I’m found guilty?
First of all, juveniles are not found “guilty”; they are said to have “engaged in delinquent conduct” if the court or a jury finds beyond a reasonable doubt that an offense was committed. This is a minor distinction but benefits the child in the future. For example, most job applications ask whether or not a person has been “convicted” of a crime; a juvenile is not convicted and therefore may answer in the negative.
If a child is found to have engaged in delinquent conduct, the disposition or ramifications can range from a probation, where custody is left with the parents or guardians, to probation where the juvenile is taken out of the home and placed into a juvenile facility to commitment or incarceration in the Texas Youth Commission. In some instances, the juvenile may face transfer or certification to the adult court to stand trial as an adult.
Based upon the offense charged and the prior conduct of the juvenile, your attorney can provide more guidance for your particular case.
Can juvenile records be sealed?
Depending on the circumstances, many juvenile cases can be sealed.
In a misdemeanor adjudication with a finding of delinquent conduct, there is a two-year waiting period before the records may be sealed. The statutes states the judge shall seal the records if (1) two years have elapsed since final discharge for a non-felony offense and (2) there have been no convictions or adjudications on any charge since final discharge and no such action is pending.
If the adjudication is for a felony offense, the sealing is discretionary for the court (may or may not be granted). The child must wait until he or she is at least 21 years of age and there can be no convictions or adjudications on any charge since final discharge and no such action pending. However, in a “determinate sentencing” case, these records may never be sealed.
Another possibility of sealing records without waiting either 2 years or until age 21 exists where there is no adjudication, i.e. no finding of delinquent conduct. This result is common when charges are dismissed or when a case is passed for deferred prosecution (a special form of probation which does not include a finding of delinquent conduct).
Consult your juvenile defense lawyer to find out if your particular records may be sealed.
Do I need to post a bond for my child?
No, juvenile offenders are not subject to being released on “bond” but are either detained or released depending upon the circumstances.
What does the court consider in deciding whether to detain or release a juvenile?
The court considers five factors in determining whether to hold the child in the detention center pending court or to release the child to a parent or guardian: (1) whether the child is likely to abscond or be removed from the jurisdiction of the court, (2) whether a parent or guardian can provide suitable supervision, care, and protection for the child, (3) whether the child has a parent or guardian who is able to return him to court when required, (4) whether the child may be a danger to himself or others if released, and (5) whether the child has previously been found to have engaged in delinquent conduct and is likely to commit a new offense if released.
It is important for the parents (or guardian) to be present with a juvenile defense lawyer at the detention hearing to explore whether or not the judge will release the child.