Any child, from age 10 to age 16, may be charged with and held responsible for virtually the same offenses as an adult. But the law recognizes that a child makes mistakes and does not possess the same level of responsibility than would an adult. So the rules of procedure in juvenile court are different but much more complex than in adult court.
"Delinquent Child" and a "Child in Need of Supervision"
A juvenile age 10 to 16 who commits a crime that would be punished as an adult by time in jail would be considered a "delinquent child" if found responsible for committing the crime. If the offense would normally be a Class C misdemeanor (fine only) as an adult (except for traffic offenses) if found responsible, the child would be considered a "child in need of supervision" (CINS). Some offenses, such as runaway, are CINS offenses that only a child may commit.
A child may first be confronted with the juvenile system after their arrest. You, as a parent, have certain rights to be notified as soon as possible after the arrest. The child may then be released to the parent or committed to the county's juvenile detention facility.
The juvenile court will hold a detention hearing on the 2nd working day after the arrest (or on Monday if on a weekend). In that hearing, the child will need to be represented by an attorney. The judge could keep the child in detention after the hearing for the next 10 working days. Every 10 working days, a hearing will be held at which the judge may keep or release them. This is all before a child is actually found guilty (or "delinquent").
Only after this point, usually about a month, the prosecutor may file a "petition" charging the child with the delinquent offense -- like an indictment would for an adult. The court will set the case for a court appearance to determine whether a trial is needed or to hear motions by the child's attorney.
Your child possesses the same right to a full jury trial before a judge as does any adult charged with that crime. And, like an adult case, the State must prove the accused guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, the accused does not have to testify if they don't wish, and the accused's attorney will have the opportunity to cross-examine the prosecutor's witnesses. Unlike an adult case, however, in the punishment phase, or "disposition," only the judge can determine the juvenile's consequences.
A juvenile's "punishment" is considered by the courts as rehabilitation and called "disposition." The law tells the courts to consider the best interest of the child in deciding their consequences.
A child determined by the court as "delinquent" faces more serious consequences than a CINS offender. The CINS child would normally, if their first offense, complete a few months of supervision by the local juvenile probation office without the need for court involvement.
A delinquent child, however, could be given anything from a few months of probation to commitment with the Texas Juvenile Justice Department -- incarceration for juveniles that could last until they are 19 years old. Probation could be any length from a few months or until they are 18 years old, depending on the severity of the offense, their criminal history, and how well they do on probation. In addition, while on probation, a child may be given community service to complete, kept on house arrest, or even sent out of town to a boot camp for several months.
Your Child's Attorney
Be aware that, unlike adult misdemeanor court at which an adult may choose to represent themselves, the juvenile court will likely require you to have an attorney for your child. That is to protect your child's very important rights and represent them in this complex process. It is extremely important that you, as the parent, have someone to help you look out for your child's best interest and help your child understand the consequences, the process, and the law.
Shannon Flanigan has spent significant time on both sides of this process -- as a prosecutor in juvenile court and as a juvenile defense attorney, advocating for the children accused of delinquent offenses. He can explain this process to your child in language appropriate for their age and maturity and help them make decisions that would best protect their rights and future.