May-June 2014

Calling all Texas juvenile prosecutors!

Jill Mata

Assistant Criminal ­District Attorney in Bexar County

The Texas Juvenile Prosecutor Network (TJPN) has been launched, and its aim is to connect and educate Texas prosecutors who handle juvenile cases.

Do you handle juvenile prosecutions and feel that “regular” prosecutors don’t really understand you? Do you use words like respondent, petition, determinate sentence, status offender, release and transfer hearing—and get blank stares from your non-juvenile justice co-workers? Are you tired of saying to other prosecutors, “Yes, we also use the Penal Code!”? Or are you a brand-new prosecutor who has landed in juvenile court, not really sure what to do with these young people charged with an assortment of crimes?
    If so, I have some exciting news for you! With the encouragement of Bexar County Criminal District Attorney Susan Reed, we presented the idea of establishing a Texas Juvenile Prosecutor Network (TJPN) to the TDCAA Board and received strong support to move forward.  The TJPN can help us connect, brainstorm, assist, and communicate with each other throughout the state.  
    I have been a juvenile prosecutor for more than 15 of my 25 years in Bexar County, and the idea of a prosecutor-friendly forum to specifically advance juvenile justice is exciting! I have heard from many of you over the years. We talk on the phone, email each other, or meet at juvenile law seminars, and we realize that juvenile prosecutors have a unique role, both in juvenile justice and in prosecution. In the juvenile justice arena we are expected to be mindful of the precarious nature of youth and the established potential for rehabilitation as we assess our cases, craft charges, and offer plea agreements. As prosecutors we must provide a strong voice for crime victims, and our decisions must promote and support community safety, all while managing strict confidentiality rules set forth in the Family Code.
    Now comes the fun part! You can help shape what the Network will look like and what it will do. First, let us know that you are interested. Contact me by email at [email protected]. If you are old-school, you can call me at 210/335-1965. Make sure to leave your name, what office you’re in, your contact information, and that you are interested in the TJPN.
    Secondly, tell us what assistance you need as a juvenile prosecutor and/or what you can offer in terms of expertise and experience. Examples could include:
•    training specific to juvenile cases, such as certification and discretionary transfer;
•    handling juvenile sex offense cases;
•    forms for use in filing petitions, motions, discretionary transfer, or trial;
•    research on effective programs (because others expect us to weigh in on recommended treatment options for juvenile offenders); and
•    information about establishing specialty court programs that focus on particular youth with mental health diagnoses or those involved in human trafficking;
    Some envision the network hosting juvenile-specific discussion forums on topics like implementing the Michael Morton Act, truancy reduction, the school-to-prison pipeline, or “raise the age” legislation. Prosecutors are often called to offer opinion or testimony on proposed legislation, and being able to efficiently assess the views of prosecutors statewide would be a great benefit. There are a lot of important conversations going on about youthful offenders, adolescent development, and best practices in treatment, and prosecutors need to be in the middle of that movement rather than left out and later expected to deal with the consequences of major changes in the law.
    What are our next steps? I encourage you to attend our inaugural TJPN meeting at the next TDCAA Annual Criminal and Civil Law Update in South Padre September 17–19, 2014, if you are able. We need to hear from all kinds of prosecutors handling juvenile cases and realize the issues are different depending on the size and location of your office. The network should represent everyone, and there is already a small, dedicated, and diverse bunch of folks interested in discussing our goals and ideas to create a network that will best serve our needs. We are looking forward to you joining us!