The State Legislature develops laws and the criminal justice system is charged with both enforcing those laws and sentencing offenders. 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.
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. A misdemeanor means an offense so designated by law or punishable by fine, confinement in county jail, or by both a fine and confinement in county jail. Examples of misdemeanor offenses are driving while intoxicated, simple assault, and thefts of $1,500 or less. A felony means an offense so designated by law or punishable by death, confinement in the Institutional Division (prison) or the State Jail Division of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (according to the level of the felony), or by both a fine and confinement. Some felony offenses are theft more than $1,500, assault with a deadly weapon, murder, third convictions for driving while intoxicated, and many burglaries.
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 (probation). 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, with few exceptions, precludes these individuals from being placed under community supervision (probation), since there is no jail sentence to suspend.
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 (probation). 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.
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 higher 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 make up the grand jury and are appointed by the district judge, whether there is enough evidence to formally charge the offender. Misdemeanor offenders and some felony offenders are charged through a document known as 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 set for a hearing in the state district court of jurisdiction for felony offenses, and in the county court of jurisdiction for misdemeanor 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. The majority 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 event 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 majority of offenders who go through the court system receive suspended sentences and are placed under community supervision (probation).