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What is a juvenile adjudication hearing in Texas?

The juvenile justice system in Texas is much different than the adult system. The terminology and procedures are different, and it is easy to get confused – especially when words like “juvenile adjudication” and “delinquent conduct” are used.

In short, a juvenile adjudication hearing is a trial – similar to an adult criminal trial – in which a judge or jury determines if a juvenile committed an offense. The words “guilty” and “not guilty” are not used in the juvenile system. Instead, they use the words “true” or “not true.”

In the article, we’ll explain what happens during a juvenile adjudication hearing and what happens when a child is found to have engaged in delinquent conduct – the equivalent of being convicted in the adult system.Lisa Herrick Juvenile Defense Lawyer

If your child has been accused of committing a crime in Tarrant County or North Texas, it’s important to contact an experienced juvenile attorney as soon as possible. Attorney Lisa Herrick is a highly-regarded Board Certified Juvenile Attorney at Varghese Summersett, where she specializes in defending youth ages 10 through 16.

Important Juvenile Terms to Know

If your child has been accused of committing an offense and is facing a juvenile trial – legally referred to as an adjudication hearing – it’s important to familiarize yourself with common terms that you will likely hear your attorney say or in court.

Respondent: In the juvenile system, youth accused of crimes are referred to as “respondents.” In the adult system, individuals accused of a crime are referred to as “defendants.”

Delinquent Conduct: Under Section 51.03 (a) (1) of the Texas Family Code, delinquent conduct is defined as conduct, other than a traffic offense, that violates a state or federal law and, if committed by an adult, would be punishable by prison or jail. This includes Class A and B misdemeanors, as well as felony offenses. Think of delinquent conduct as a “charge” and can include:

Adjudication hearing: An adjudication hearing is a trial where a judge or jury will decide whether the allegations made against the juvenile are true or not true. An adjudication hearing will only occur if the juvenile is pleading “not true” – that is, “not guilty” – to the crime for which he or she is charged. 

Adjudicated delinquent: If a juvenile has been adjudicated delinquent, that means a judge or jury has found the allegations against the juvenile to be true and is in need of rehabilitation. In other words, they will face consequences/punishment. This is the equivalent to a “guilty” verdict in adult court.

Adjudicated not delinquent: When a juvenile has been adjudicated not delinquent after a trial, that means the allegations against the juvenile have been found not true by a judge or jury. The case (or petition) against the juvenile will be dismissed. This is the equivalent to a “not guilty” verdict in adult court.

What happens during a juvenile adjudication hearing?

As mentioned, a juvenile adjudication hearing is basically the equivalent to an adult criminal trial. The hearing must be before a jury of 12 people unless the juvenile waives that right and elects to have a trial before a judge instead. In that case, a judge – not a jury- will decide if the child engaged in delinquent conduct by committing a crime.

At the beginning of the hearing, the juvenile court judge will explain to the child, as well as his or her parents or guardian, the allegations, the nature and possible consequences of the proceedings, and the juvenile’s legal rights.

Afterward, just like in an adult criminal trial, both sides will present evidence. The prosecution will call witnesses and introduce evidence in an effort to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the child committed the offense for which he or she is accused. The defense will defend the child by cross-examining the state’s witnesses and present evidence on behalf of the juvenile. Afterward, both sides will have an opportunity to give closing arguments.

At the conclusion, the jury will deliberate (or the judge if it is a bench trial) and issue its decision as to whether or not the juvenile engaged in delinquent conduct.

If the state did not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the child engaged in the alleged conduct, the court must dismiss the case. This is referred to as adjudicated not delinquent.

If the judge or jury (by a unanimous verdict) finds that the child engaged in delinquent conduct, the court will adjudicate delinquent and set a date for a disposition, or a sentencing hearing. Most of the time in Tarrant County, the disposition hearing will occur on the same day, directly after the adjudication hearing

Can a child plead true (or guilty) and avoid a trial?

Yes, if the juvenile chooses to waive a trial, and admit responsibility, he or she can stipulate to the evidence and enter a plea of “true.” The case can then proceed to a disposition hearing. If all parties come to an agreement about appropriate punishment, the case could also potentially be resolved through a plea bargain agreement if approved by the judge.

What happens during a juvenile disposition hearing?

During the disposition hearing, a judge will hear evidence to decide the appropriate punishment and rehabilitation for the juvenile offender. There is no right to a jury in a disposition hearing except in determinate sentencing cases, which are reserved for the most serious crimes. Punishment can include anything from probation, placement out of the home, or commitment to the Texas Juvenile Justice Department (TJJD), which is basically prison for juveniles.

Who is in the courtroom during a juvenile adjudication hearing?

The judge, juvenile, prosecutor, defense attorney, probation officer, bailiff and court reporter will all be present in the courtroom at the juvenile adjudication hearing. The juvenile’s parent or guardian will also be present in the courtroom. If the parents are unable to attend, the court will appoint a guardian ad litem. Witnesses are required to stay outside the courtroom until they are called to testify. Juvenile courtrooms are also generally open to the public if the child is 14 or older.

How common are juvenile adjudication hearings in Tarrant County?

In 2021, there were a total 1043 juvenile adjudication hearings held in Tarrant County, according to a 2021 Tarrant County Juvenile Services Annual Report. That accounts for about 20 percent of all juvenile hearings in the county.

Juvenile accused of a crime in North Texas? Contact Attorney Lisa Herrick.

If you are in search of a highly experienced juvenile defense attorney in Fort Worth, Dallas, or the surrounding areas, you have come to the right place. Attorney Lisa Herrick is Board Certified in Juvenile law – one of only three attorneys in Tarrant County to hold this prestigious distinction. Board certification means she is considered a legal expert, making her the best of the best in this highly specialized area of law.

Not only is Lisa extremely knowledgeable and highly skilled, but she is a fighter. She will leave no stone unturned in her effort to protect your child’s rights and freedom. Call Lisa today for a free consultation at 817-203-2220.

Varghese Summersett is a premier criminal defense firm based in Fort Worth, Texas. Our attorneys focus exclusively on criminal law and represent clients charged with crimes at both the state and federal level. We handle everything from DWI to capital murder to white collar crime. Collectively, our attorneys bring together more than 100 years of criminal law experience and have tried more than 550 cases before Texas juries. All of our senior attorneys served as former state or federal prosecutors and four are Board Certified in Criminal law, the highest designation an attorney can reach. We are the firm people turn to when the stakes are high and they are facing the biggest problem in their lives. - Contact Varghese at  
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