Juvenile Offenses: Law Enforcement and Municipal Court
A number of bills relating to reforming the way juveniles are disciplined for class C misdemeanors passed during the 2013 regular session. Senate Bills 393, 394, 395, and S.B. 1114, along with H.B. 528, are among them. Each of those bills was summarized in the “Legislative Wrap Up” edition of the Legislative Update.
Why were the bills passed? The use of the court system for class C, fine-only misdemeanors has gained much attention in recent years. The common wisdom is that the criminalization of misbehavior by children should be subject to restraints and that sending every case of misbehavior to the courts overloads the system and represents bad public policy.
In 2012, the Texas Supreme Court formed the Juvenile Justice Committee of the Texas Judicial Council to:
[a]ssess the impact of school discipline and school-based policing on referrals to the municipal, justice, and juvenile courts and identify judicial policies or initiatives that: work to reduce referrals without having a negative impact on school safety; limit recidivism; and preserve judicial resources for students who are in need of this type of intervention.
The committee ultimately made four legislative recommendations for the 2013 session:
- expressly authorize local governments to implement “deferred prosecution” measures in Class C misdemeanors to decrease the number of local filings from schools.
- amend applicable criminal laws to ensure that local courts are the last and not the first step in school discipline.
- amend offenses relating to disruption of class, disruption of transportation, and disorderly conduct so that age (not grade level) is a prima facie element of the offense.
- amend existing criminal law and procedures to increase parity between “criminal juvenile justice in local trial courts” and “civil juvenile justice in juvenile court and juvenile probation.”
The four recommendations formed the basis of the bills mentioned above. Notable is S.B. 393, which permits a judge to offer a child defendant who incurs a fine and court costs a choice between paying the fine and court costs or performing community service in lieu of payment. The bill also allows a judge the option of waiving fines and court costs for children.
In addition, the bill creates “school offenses” which are Class C misdemeanor offenses – other than traffic offenses – committed on property under the control and jurisdiction of a school district. A peace officer may not issue a citation to a child who is alleged to have committed a school offense. Of course, the bill is not meant to limit the authority of law enforcement officers. To that end, it does not limit a peace officer’s authority to arrest a child or stop school officials or employees from filing charges in court.
A child may go through a graduated sanctions program for the school offenses of disruption of class, disruption of transportation, and disorderly conduct before a complaint may be filed against them. It also prohibits prosecution of very young children (i.e., those younger than 10 yeas of age) in most cases.
One additional juvenile issue is the confidentiality of juvenile court records. In 2011, the law in this area was amended to provide confidentiality to a greater number of children adjudicated in municipal and justice courts without running afoul of the First Amendment or the public’s expectation of transparency in criminal cases. The law prior to S.B. 393 and H.B. 528, allows confidentiality in instances where children are “convicted” of certain Class C misdemeanor offenses and satisfy the judgment. Prior to S.B. 393 and H.B. 528, there weren’t sufficient confidentiality provisions for children who completed deferred disposition or deferred adjudication.
The 2013 bills extend confidentiality to a greater number of children who have avoided being found guilty by successfully completedsome form of probation. The sections in S.B. 393 (“conditional” confidentiality) pertaining to expanding conditional confidentiality are in conflict with H.B. 528 (essentially “absolute” confidentiality). An attorney general opinion has been requested to resolve the conflicts (RQ-1136-GA). Until the issuance of that opinion, cities can operate under the provisions of S.B. 393. (S.B. 393 is effective now, but H.B. 528 is not effective until January 1, 2014.)