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.
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. Photographs are taken of all juveniles who are referred to the Fort Bend County Juvenile Probation Department for a class “B” misdemeanor and above and kept on record until the juvenile has either sealed their files [PDF] or the file has entered into restricted access [PDF].
Intake - Front Door to the System
Children arrive at the Fort Bend County 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. Upon intake into the detention center all juveniles are assessed for any physical and/or mental conditions that may warrant closer observation by the detention staff supervising the juvenile. Any medical needs are immediately addressed and mental needs are addressed upon initial assessment. Once a decision has been made by the intake staff to hold the juvenile in the secure detention center for further investigations and proceedings the intake officer will notify the parents/guardians of the child and arrange a meeting to gather information from them.
A checklist of items that the parents/guardians will be required to provide will be given to them along with a financial packet [PDF] that will need to be completed if the parent is unable to provide an attorney for the child. If the child is to be held for a detention hearing a report will be completed prior to the detention hearing for the judge’s review at the detention hearing. Initial detention hearings will be held within 48 hours of the child being detained, not including weekends and/or holidays, with subsequent detention hearings held every 10 working days.
The Fort Bend County Juvenile Detention Center is a short-term, secure facility designed to protect the community and the child, and to assure the child’s 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 detention center offers top quality custodial care, crisis intervention, counseling, education and many other services. While a child is in detention they may receive psychological assessments and counseling, substance abuse assessments and counseling and a comprehensive literacy assessment. The Fort Bend County Detention Center is a 80 bed facility consisting of two 18 bed male units, one 12 bed female unit, three 8 bed honors dorms and eight holding cells. The probation department employs numerous mental health professionals and Licensed Chemical Dependency Counselors to provide services to juveniles detained at the detention facility. While a child is detained they are provided 3 meals a day, an education, opportunities for addressing mental and physical needs, recreational opportunities and a literacy program, all within a safe and secure setting. The juveniles detained within the detention center are afforded rights including access to writing a grievance if the juvenile requests and the capability of notifying authorities if abuse, neglect or exploitation has occurred against them or others within the facility.
Waiting for Court
When charges are filed against a child, a probation officer initiates a court investigation. After making a detailed assessment of the child’s behavior, home, school and social relationships, the officer writes a social history report to assist the judge in deciding on a plan for the child’s future. The court officer provides valued information to the court system to determine what course of action and treatment is in the best interest of the child.
Going to Court
In the court proceeding, called an adjudication hearing, the child, family and the child’s 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 law-abiding future. 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 Juvenile Justice Division 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 Juvenile Justice Division 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.
Deferred Prosecution Probation
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 three to six-month "Deferred Prosecution" program avoid the adjudication process and continued involvement with authorities. Deferred prosecution is an alternative to seeking a formal adjudication of delinquent conduct or conduct indicating a need for supervision. Deferred Prosecution ranges from 3-6 months, however, in certain circumstances, may be extended for up to an additional 6 months. Juveniles placed on deferred prosecution are required to follow rules of probation as well as complete certain assigned programs, such as community service or counseling. Deferred prosecution may be offered to the juvenile by either the district attorney’s office or at the court level.
Of all the court’s 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 child’s 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. The majority of the juveniles adjudicated and placed on formal probation will remain at home under various levels of supervision. Those juveniles on formal probation are supervised by field services. Juveniles can be placed on formal probation ranging from 6 months and up to their 18th birthday. When a juvenile has been declared delinquent, the court sets the rules of probation.
The field division has four distinct units comprised of twenty-seven full time employees. Once a child is placed on probation, they report with their parent or guardian to the Field Services Division for a Post Court Interview (PCI). During the PCI, an officer explains the rules of probation and expectations of both the parent and child. The parent and child also attend community service orientation and receive a work schedule. While under supervision, the juvenile is subject to drug testing, curfew inspections at home and school, reporting monthly, reporting weekly (ISP), twenty-four hour curfew, performance of community service restitution and payment of probation fees and any restitution ordered. The Intensive Supervision Program (ISP) Unit is classified within the Field Unit of the Juvenile Probation Department. The ISP Unit's main function is to improve probation outcomes by placing high risk juvenile offenders on smaller, more intensive caseloads. Typically, juvenile offenders are placed on ISP due to the seriousness of their offense(s) (i.e. felony probation) or due to their unsuccessful attempt(s) on earlier probation.
The Department currently employs seven (7) Juvenile Probation Officers (JPO) who supervise juveniles under the Intensive Supervision Program. There are three (3) JPOs assigned to visit juveniles who remain in public school after being probated. Each officer is assigned to a different geographical location, or “zone,” of the county. One (1) JPO offices at each of Fort Bend County’s Juvenile Justice Alternative Education Program (JJAEP) / Juvenile Leadership Academy Program (JLA) sites located in Rosenberg, TX and Arcola, TX. These JPOs are able to assist with the daily supervision of the juveniles at each location and act as an advocate for the juveniles assigned to the site. Finally, one (1) JPO is assigned to the Sexual Offenders program and one (1) to the TCOOMI (MHMR) program. ISP JPOs have the same duties and responsibilities as regular Field JPOs, with the added responsibility of an increased amount of contact with the juveniles on their caseload. ISP JPOs conduct (at a minimum) one (1) school visit and one (1) office visit per week, as well as one (1) home visit per month. Additionally, ISP JPOs make telephone contact with the child/ family and the juvenile’s counselor at least once per week. An office visit takes place in the JPO’s office with the juvenile and their parent or guardian. The office visit is a face-to-face opportunity for the juvenile and parent to ask questions and report weekly activities. This is an opportunity for the JPO to observe the parent-child relationship and to ensure compliance with the terms of probation. Weekly office visits cultivate a more accountable relationship between the JPO, juvenile, and parent. School visits take place at each juvenile’s assigned school. During each weekly school visit, the JPO request current attendance, disciplinary, and academic records from school personnel. School visits offer an opportunity for the Juvenile Probation Department to show support to the local school districts by having JPO’s visible in different schools several times a week. Home visits are usually conducted in the evenings, on weekends, and as a substitute for school visits during school holidays. Home visits give the JPO the opportunity to observe the living conditions and family dynamics of each juvenile. Additionally, home visits are an opportunity for the JPO to provide support and guidance to the family. With the increased supervision provided by the ISP unit to the juveniles and their families it is the hope that we decrease the likelihood of the juvenile re-offending or suffering further consequences from the Department.
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 conduct. When it is determined that a juvenile should be considered for placement outside the home the staffing committee meets to consider all available alternatives. The staffing committee is generally comprised of the chief and/or assistant chief, deputy chief, the supervisor, a member of the psychology division, a probation supervisor from field, court or intake and the assigned juvenile probation officer. All of the information (child's legal history, prior services, psychological and/or psychiatric testing, treatment needs, family situation, and school records) is discussed. The probation department attempts to exhaust all of the resources available before placing a child out of the home. Placement recommendations and options are recommended for the judge's consideration. The juveniles going to placement are screened for eligibility of state and/or federal reimbursements. The placement unit works diligently to find the appropriate placement for each juvenile to address their needs and be successful upon their return home. The placement unit has monthly face-to-face contacts with the juveniles and program staff while the juveniles are in placement. The placement officer is responsible for monitoring the juvenile's progress and addressing any concerns as they arise, as well as updating the court of any significant issues.
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 public. To insure that your child’s files are secured you will want to follow the guidelines for Sealing of the Files. 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.