Do I need an attorney and what do I look for in hiring one?
First, yes, most likely you will need to hire an attorney. Children appearing in juvenile court are required by law to be represented by a lawyer in most cases. You need a lawyer with experience in juvenile law. Not all lawyers are equal. This is a specialized area of law that follows different rules and procedures. You need a lawyer who understands your child's case and can effectively protect his rights. At Musick & Musick, LLP, our lawyers are experienced in both criminal and juvenile law. Firm partner JoAnne Musick is Board Certified in both Juvenile and Criminal Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization.
Legal fees are also an important factor in choosing your juvenile defense lawyer, but do you really want the cheapest attorney when your freedom and liberty are on the line? The old adage you get what you pay for is certainly true when it comes to legal fees.
How does juvenile court differ from adult court?
Cases involving children between the ages of 10 and 17 are handled in the Juvenile Courts in Texas (juvenile district or county 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.
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 file. In Harris County, the DA has an open file policy, allowing attorneys to view the police report and other evidence. The DA may make a plea offer in an attempt to "plea-bargain" the case and avoid trial.
Your attorney will be able to review the court probation report. The probation officer has likely already contacted your family and your school to obtain information about your behavior 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. Your lawyer will advise whether or not to reset.
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 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.
Can juvenile records be sealed?
Depending on the circumstances, many juvenile cases can be sealed. In a misdemeanor adjudication, 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) and 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. These can be sealed immediately.
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.
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.
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