The Criminal Justice System In Texas
The State Legislature develops laws and the criminal justice system is charged with both enforcing those laws and sentencing offenders. The criminal justice system consists of three parts. Law enforcement investigates and apprehends suspected law violators, otherwise known as defendants or offenders. The courts determine the innocence or guilt of offenders and sentence them. Offenders often receive a suspended sentence, which places them under a term of community supervision, a part of the court system in Texas. The corrections component includes jails and prisons, which provide the facilities for the incarceration and rehabilitation of convicted law offenders.
Misdemeanor and Felony Offenses - Offenders may be arrested and sentenced for two different types of offenses - misdemeanor and felony. These offenses are defined by the State Legislature and are specified in the Texas Penal Code. According to the Texas Penal Code, felony means an offense so designated by law or punishable by death, confinement in a penitentiary, or by both a fine and confinement in a penitentiary. Some felony offenses are theft more than $1,500, assault with a deadly weapon, murder, third convictions for driving while intoxicated, and many burglaries. A misdemeanor means an offense so designated by law or punishable by fine, confinement in jail, or by both a fine and confinement in jail. Examples of misdemeanor offenses are driving while intoxicated, simple assault, and thefts of $1,500 or less.
Misdemeanor offenses are divided into classes, depending on the seriousness of the offense. The classifications set out the potential punishments and are divided into Class A, Class B, and Class C misdemeanors. Persons sentenced for Class A and Class B misdemeanor offenses may be placed under community supervision. Class A misdemeanors carry a punishment of a fine not to exceed $4,000, confinement in jail for a term not to exceed one year, or both such fine and confinement. Class B misdemeanor offenses are punishable by a fine not to exceed $2,000, confinement in jail for a term not to exceed 180 days, or both such fine and confinement. The punishment for a Class C misdemeanor is a fine not to exceed $500, which precludes these individuals from being placed under community supervision, since there is no jail sentence to suspend. An exception to this is after three convictions in two years for public intoxication or disorderly conduct, offenders are to be placed on community supervision for rehabilitative purposes.
Felony offenses are divided into five types, from the most serious felony to the least serious, and are also defined by their punishment. With the exception of persons committing capital felonies, habitual offenders, and certain other violent offenders, persons sentenced for felony offenses are eligible for placement under community supervision. A capital felony offense carries punishment of life in prison or the death penalty. A first degree felony is punishable by five to 99 years in prison and a fine not to exceed $10,000. Second degree felonies carry a punishment range of two to 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000. Third degree felonies carry a punishment range of two to 10 years in prison and a fine up to $10,000. State Jail felonies are punishable by a term of 180 days to two years in a state jail facility and a fine of up to $10,000.
From Arrest to Disposition - Once a crime is committed, a suspect may or may not be arrested by a law enforcement agency. If an arrest takes place for a Class B or more serious offense, the formal process to sentencing is a lengthy one. The offender is usually taken to jail. In the formal process, a preliminary hearing is held to determine whether and how much bond will be set. Bond is available to most offenders except those charged with the most serious of offenses. The next step in felony cases is a grand jury hearing in which it is determined by nine citizens who are appointed by one of the district judges and who make up the grand jury, whether there is enough evidence to formally charge the offender. Misdemeanor offenders and some felony offenders, are charged through a document known as an information, which serves the same purpose as the indictment, but is generated in the prosecutor's office. Once indicted or formally charged, the case is assigned in Brazos County to one of the three district courts for felony offenses, and for misdemeanor offenses, one of the two county courts-at-law or the one district court that hears misdemeanor cases. As with felony offenses, the formal process consists of a status of attorney hearing, a pre-trial hearing, jury selection, a jury trial, deliberation to determine guilt or innocence, and a punishment phase of the trial and pronouncement of sentence if the offender is found guilty. Both misdemeanor and felony cases may proceed via a bench trial instead of a jury trial. In these cases, evidence is presented to the judge instead of a jury for consideration of guilt, and if guilt is determined by the judge, evidence is presented to that same judge for sentencing. In reality, few cases proceed via the formal sentencing process. Approximately 95 percent of offenders opt for what is known as a plea bargained sentence. These offenders agree to plead guilty to the judge in exchange for a sentence known to them before sentencing, although the judge is never bound by the plea bargain agreement. Many misdemeanor offenders do so without ever hiring an attorney or having one appointed. Most pleas occur without any events occurring in the formal process other than the indictment or information being handed down, perhaps a status of attorney hearing, and the plea and sentencing. Plea bargaining allows the court system to process cases much more quickly, and to avoid a lengthy backlog in case disposition as would occur if every case went to trial. The vast majority of offenders who go through the court system receive suspended sentences and are placed under community supervision.
In Texas, community supervision is a function of the local court system, so it is a judicial function, whereas parole is a State function for which authority rests in the executive branch of government. Community supervision is authorized and defined in The Code of Criminal Procedure, Article 42.12. This article forms the basis from which community supervision operates.
According to Article 42.12, Section 2 of The Code of Criminal Procedure, community supervision is: The placement of a defendant by a court under a continuum of programs and sanctions, with conditions imposed by the court for a specified period during which criminal proceedings are deferred without an adjudication of guilt, or a sentence of imprisonment or confinement in jail, imprisonment and fine, or confinement in jail and fine, is probated and the imposition of sentence is suspended in whole or in part. In other words, once a defendant has been convicted or has pled guilty or no contest to an offense, the court may suspend imposition of the sentence to the county jail or state penitentiary and place the defendant on community supervision. The defendant, in turn, must abide by conditions imposed by the court for a specified period of time, which includes not committing new offenses while under supervision, reporting regularly, paying restitution and other obligations, and completion of various programs designed to help the offender lead a more pro-social lifestyle. If the defendant fails to abide by these conditions, the court has the option of imposing a term of imprisonment or jail time through revoking the defendant's supervision. The length of the term depends on the type of community supervision and the discretion of the court. Community supervision can be a sanction, an organization, and a process. As a sanction, community supervision is the preferred punishment available to courts in disposing criminal cases. As an organization, community supervision is the infrastructure through which and by which the process of community corrections is administered or implemented. As a process, community supervision involves the utilization of the continuum of programs and sanctions which are created for the purposes of reducing the probability that offenders will re-offend and removing from the community those offenders who cannot or will not comply with the requirements imposed by the court.
Supervised by the local Community Supervision and Corrections Department (CSCD), the offender must meet specific conditions set by the court while being supervised. Progress and compliance with conditions ordered by the court are monitored by a community supervision officer. If the offender does not follow the conditions, conditions can be changed (modified) or the offender can be removed from community supervision (revoked) and sent to prison or jail. Community supervision includes a wide range of requirements, such as regular reporting, attending counseling, drug testing, electronic monitoring, placement in a residential facility or state jail, paying restitution, and performing community service.
Community supervision and corrections departments are responsible for supervising offenders placed on community supervision as defined above. Chapter 76 of The Government Code and Section 42.131 of The Texas Code of Criminal Procedure define community supervision and corrections departments and explain how they are governed. Departments are established by the district judges, who appoint a director, who then employs officers and other staff as necessary to conduct pre-sentence investigations, supervise and assist in the rehabilitation of defendants placed on community supervision, and enforce the conditions of supervision. Employees of the department are subject to the management of the criminal court judges as well as the director of the department. Judicial authority over CSCD's in Texas is referred to as local autonomy - the local judiciary, in conjunction with each department's director, sets local policy and makes decisions about local CSCD's at that level. Although CSCD's are often referred to by the name of the county they serve, CSCD's are not governed by county government. CSCD's do offer benefits to employees at least equal to the benefits received by employees in the largest county they serve, and receive facilities, utilities, and equipment from counties.
Community supervision and corrections departments receive approximately half of their funding from appropriations made at the state level. The other half of the budget is raised through the collection of supervision fees. The funding from the state passes through and is regulated by a state agency known as the Community Justice Assistance Division (CJAD) of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ.) TDCJ is governed by a nine-member board, which appoints an executive director. It was formed by the legislature in 1989 and is the umbrella agency for four legislatively-mandated divisions: the Institutional Division, which manages and operates prisons that confine and offer programs to felony offenders; the State Jail Division, which oversees and promulgates standards for the facilities which house offenders charged with state jail felony offenses; the Parole Division, which manages the reintegration of felony offenders into society after their release from incarceration; and the Community Justice Assistance Division, which oversees CSCD's. Employees of the first three divisions are employed by the State of Texas, so prison guards, state jail prison guards, and parole officers are State employees. Persons employed with the Community Justice Assistance Division (CJAD) are also State employees, but CSCD employees are considered employees of the department, which is a political entity of the judicial districts they serve. Thus, CJAD oversees CSCD operations, but CSCD employees are not employees of CJAD or of the State, except for purposes of Workers' Compensation claims, and for purposes of certain lawsuits.
According to law, the purpose of CJAD is to: allow localities to develop effective sanctions for criminal defendants; provide increased opportunities for criminal defendants to make restitution; provide increased use of community penalties based on local needs; and, promote efficiency and economy in the delivery of community based correctional programs. In addition, CJAD is to: set minimum standards for programs, community corrections facilities, and other aspects of the operations of CSCD's; provide a list and description of core services that should be provided by each department; establish methods for measuring the success of community supervision and corrections programs, including methods for measuring the rates of diversion, program completion, and recidivism; set a format for community justice plans; and, establish standards for the operation of substance abuse facilities and programs funded through CJAD. These requirements can be found in The Government Code, Section 509.003. Other matters relating to CJAD and CSCD's can be found in Chapter 509 of The Government Code.
CJAD considers its primary responsibilities the following: distribution of state aid to CSCD's in compliance with CJAD standards; making grant awards to local CSCD's, municipalities, counties, and nonprofit organizations; providing technical assistance in the development of community justice plans and community corrections programs, as well as in the establishment of community justice councils and task forces; providing training, certification, and continuing education for community supervision officers; supplying technical assistance in data collection systems; monitoring fiscal expenditures of those receiving state aid and grant funds; and, auditing CSCD's to ensure compliance with standards and law.
In addition to the above-mentioned agencies, the Judicial Advisory Council (JAC) provides guidance to CJAD and advises the Board of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice on matters pertaining to CJAD. The JAC is composed of 12 members appointed by the Presiding Judge of the Court of Criminal Appeals and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Texas. The Probation Advisory Committee provides consultation to CJAD and the JAC on issues of importance to community supervision in Texas. Its members, mainly directors of CSCD's, are appointed from each judicial administrative region by the Chair of the JAC.