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Texas Juvenile Law: When Can Juveniles Be Tried as Adults?

The Law Firm of Andrea M. Kolski

Every parent worries about the safety of their teen. In today’s wired society, teens have constant access to social media and other ways that could potentially lure them into trouble. Unfortunately, the law can be tough on teens who knowingly or unknowingly cross the line. Texas generally says that offenders under 18 years of age are subject to the juvenile justice system. They are not tried as adults because they aren’t yet legally considered adults.

Yet, juveniles are routinely tried as adults, particularly in serious violent crimes or when they are a repeat offender.

How is the distinction made, and who makes it? When can juveniles be tried as adults? Keep reading to learn more about how the justice system applies to minors.

There Are Two Court Systems in Texas

Similar to most states, Texas operates two court systems: the juvenile court system and the adult criminal court system.

Juvenile court generally deals with minors between ages 10 and 17. Any person 18 and older automatically go through the adult system.

However, depending on the charges, not all children make their way into juvenile court. If a minor is age 14 or older, then they can be referred to the adult system.

When Can Juveniles Be Tried as Adults?

When a 14-year-old is transferred into the adult justice system, it is called a “judicial waiver.” A judge may use a juvenile waiver when the case meets two conditions. This waiver denies the juvenile offender in question the protections that the juvenile court system provides.

First, there needs to be probable cause to believe the child committed the offense. The state needs to provide probable cause to bring charges, but in these cases, there is a strong likelihood of conviction.

Second, the juvenile court can refer the case when they believe the nature of the offense – or the child’s history – begets a proceeding in an adult court. These are serious offenses and treated as such.

In other words, it has to appear likely that the child is guilty, but the case also needs to suggest that the child has a violent background that doesn’t respond to traditional rehabilitation.

Unlike other states, Texas uses the 14-year-old rule across the board. It is the minimum age for a judicial waiver for:

  • Certain felonies
  • Capital crimes
  • Certain drug offenses

Some states, like Kentucky, can refer children as young as ten.

Once a juvenile enters the adult system, they stay there if they commit another offense (“once an adult always an adult”). The only exception is if there is an acquittal or dismissal in the case or if there is a reversal upon appeal.

What Does It Mean to Be Tried as an Adult in Texas?

When a judge transfers a juvenile’s case to an adult court, it means they face the same sentencing structure as adults. However, a minor in adult court does not face the death penalty or life in prison without parole.

They also have an adult criminal record. While some convictions on juvenile records can be expunged or sealed, it becomes much more difficult on an adult record.

Being tried as an adult – even and especially for serious felonies like murder – is terrible for juveniles. Rather than focusing on rehabilitation through the juvenile system, the adult court threatens to put them away – and put their life on hold indefinitely.

Is It Possible To Stop a Child from Being Tried as an Adult?

In theory, the chances of a child receiving a transfer to adult court should be only in the rarest and most extreme cases. Unfortunately, the state of Texas is well-known for fast-tracking minors out of the juvenile system, with some attorneys acknowledging it could be a good legal strategy.

Between 1997 and 2007, 93 percent of juvenile certifications were granted in one Texas county. The figures represent what some officials call an assembly line system based on cost-cutting and expedience rather than justice and rehabilitation.

In this system, appearances can play a big role in the defendants fate. Kids can look like children in adult court; not like the troubled youth trotted out in front of juvenile court judges day after day.

There’s another unfortunate fact about Texas law. Before 1995, kids had an automatic appeal when moved to adult court. Today, they don’t have the right. Once a judge remands a case over to the adult criminal court, the criminal court cannot hand it back to the juvenile court.

What Happens Next?

Unfortunately, if the juvenile court refers the case to the criminal court, the best thing to do is find an excellent criminal defense and attempt to either lessen or beat the charges brought against the child.

While the system may appear to have the best intentions, oftentimes these juveniles face an uphill battle to prevail in court. A strong legal defense will be in order.

In some cases, a lawyer may recommend leaning into the adult criminal court referral. The child has to sit before a jury, who are more likely to see them as a child than a judge who sees children all day in juvenile court.

There are a wide array of possible defenses and no way to include them all here. Everything depends on the case and the defendant in the chair. However, some common strategies that are used in adult court include the recognition of the environmental characteristics that contribute to youth crime, including:

  • Impact of community disinvestment on development and behavior
  • Consequences of childhood trauma and the long-term effects
  • Stress caused by living in poverty
  • Poor decision-making skills as a result of development (youth aren’t fully developed until their 20s)

A criminal defense attorney can help you identify the best legal argument for your case.

Remember: Minors Lose Indigent Defense in Criminal Court

In juvenile court, juveniles have a constitutionally mandated access to counsel. The access does not depend on their ability to afford it, and the court doesn’t hold accountable if they do not have an attorney.

Once the court turns them over to the adult criminal court, the indigent defense disappears. However, the court should still appoint them one.

Is Your Child Being Tried as an Adult?

The Texas court system can be particularly harsh on troubled juveniles. Prosecutors and judges are overworked and cases stack up quickly. It’s difficult for them to see beyond the basics of the case and move onto the next case. This is where a skilled juvenile defense attorney can turn the tide in your favor and perhaps protect your child’s future.

Unfortunately, the Lone Star State also has a history of using the process as a way to push cases out of the juvenile court for efficiency – not based on what’s best for the defendant.

If your child’s case gets sent to adult criminal court, there’s no way to reverse the process unless deemed improper. At this point, it’s crucial to focus on winning your case.

If you know a juvenile who’s in legal trouble, we can help. We specialize in juvenile cases and are compassionate to their situation. We have successfully defended troubled teens for 20+ years in Texas courtrooms. There are dozens of young people enjoying a happy, fulfilling life thanks to our work. Contact the office of Andrea M. Kolski to review your case. Click here to schedule a confidential appointment today.

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