The Texas criminal justice system primarily deals with adults suspected of, charged with, or convicted of criminal offenses under the Penal Code. A separate system deals with juvenile offenders. According to the Texas Juvenile Justice Code (TJJC), the purpose of this separate system is, in part, “to remove…the taint of criminality from children committing certain unlawful acts,” and “to provide treatment, training, and rehabilitation.” Tex. Fam. Code §§ 51.01(2)(B), (C). The goal of a juvenile proceeding is supposed to be the rehabilitation of the child, with confinement being a last resort. A recent study of incarceration of juveniles in Texas found that more than one-fourth of children in state custody in 2015 were there for non-criminal matters, also known as “status offenses.”
The TJJC defines a “child” as someone who is at least 10 years old, but younger than 17. Id. § 51.02(2). This definition also applies to someone who is 17 or 18 years old but has been convicted—or the juvenile court equivalent—for conduct that occurred before they turned 17. The state’s definition of “delinquent conduct” by a child includes almost anything that violates the Texas Penal Code, as well as various acts that are only prohibited for children. Id. § 51.03. State law defines a “status offender” as a child involved in a case that would not result in criminal prosecution if an adult engaged in similar conduct, such as “running away from home,” being a minor in possession of alcohol, or “a violation of standards of student conduct” resulting in expulsion. Id. at § 51.02(15).
The Texas Juvenile Justice Department (TJJD), which oversees juvenile cases throughout the state, was created by SB 653 in 2011. That bill abolished two agencies, the Texas Juvenile Probation Commission and the Texas Youth Commission (TYC), and consolidated their functions in the TJJD. The TYC had operated state juvenile correctional facilities since 1957, but it faced numerous scandals and lawsuits related to alleged abuses by officers and conditions in its facilities. A lawsuit filed against the state in 2008, for example, alleged that girls at a facility in Brownwood were “frequently subjected to punitive solitary confinement” in harsh conditions, among other abuses. K.C. et al. v. Nedelkoff et al., No. 1:08-cv-00456, complaint at 2 (W.D. Tex., Jun. 12, 2008).