Law & the Media in Texas — Fair Trial Juveniles

Fair Trial Issues


Statutes identify the conditions under which courts may deal with juveniles as delinquents. Most of the effective legislation can be found in Title 3 of the Texas Family Code, which became effective in 1973.

The juvenile court has original exclusive jurisdiction over the persons who may be designated as delinquents. But the law provides for a procedure by which a person who is at least 15 years of age at the time of the commission of a felony may be transferred to a district court for trial as an adult.

The proceedings in a juvenile court are civil, rather than criminal. Actions begin with petitions rather than with arrests and complaints. Therefore, while a delinquent child may be in custody, he or she is never technically under arrest—except in the transfer to a district court, when custody is considered an arrest and the criminal process takes over.

The finding in the juvenile hearing is not whether the person is guilty or innocent, but whether or not he or she is a delinquent child. A child is not considered a criminal because he or she is judged to be a delinquent. News media should keep this in mind in handling stories involving juveniles.

In May 1967, the U.S. Supreme court handed down a decision on appeal from Arizona that extended constitutional protection to youthful offenders.

The court reversed and remanded a case in which Gerald Gault (87 S. Ct. 1428) was adjudged a delinquent and committed to a state school. He was accused of making lewd telephone calls.

The decision in the case declared that a juvenile and his parents must be notified of the accusations against the juvenile and that a juvenile has the right to have an attorney provided for him or her. The court extended other constitutional safeguards to youngsters about the right of cross-examination, confrontation with his accusers and his protection against self-incrimination.

The Family Code provisions reflect most of the requirements enunciated by the Supreme Court in the Gault case.

Records and files are strictly limited and are kept separate from files and records of adults. They are not sent to central state or federal depositories. Fingerprinting and photographing are controlled by the code.

That a juvenile has been handled by a juvenile court cannot be revealed to prospective employers. An individual is under no obligation to reveal that he or she had a record as a juvenile.

The news media should not unduly subject a juvenile to publicity that may be harmful. The juvenile process is designed, ostensibly, to help the child in trouble. Of course, situations arise that are so out of the ordinary that they merit news coverage. And in rare instances the fact that an adult had a juvenile record may be worthy of inclusion in a news story, even though under ordinary circumstances this would be frowned upon.