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Criminal Law: Limited Information Available

Prisoner & Ex-Offender Resources

This article provides basic information about Texas criminal law.

TexasLawHelp, because of conditions on its funding, can provide only limited information on criminal law.

One of the most common questions that a lawyer may be asked is, "What kind of law do you do?" This question can be answered in many different ways because the law is divided into many categories and areas. One important distinction is between civil and criminal law. 

This article contains links to resources created by the Harris County Law Library, the Texas Fair Defense Project, the Texas Young Lawyers Association, and the Texas Inmate Families Association.

What is criminal law?

Criminal law deals with crimes against the state, where possible punishment could include jail time, prison, probation, or parole. This type of law involves prosecutors, defense attorneys, charges, and convictions. Criminal cases begin when someone is accused of committing a crime listed in the Texas Penal Code.

What is civil law?

Civil law is the law that controls non-criminal issues. Civil lawsuits generally do not result in jail time or "punishment." Instead, the outcome of a civil case is usually an order from a judge that one person pay another person money to make up for harm that they caused, handling a family law (custody, divorce, etc.) matter, or that someone stop behaving in a way that interferes with another person's individual rights.

This type of law can involve plaintiffs, defendants, petitioners, respondents, claims, petitions, motions, remedies, and relief. Learn more at Civil Litigation in Texas: The Basics in Three Phases.

Civil cases generally begin when a plaintiff files a petition with the court based on a specific cause of action. A list of causes of action can be found at your local law library. TexasLawHelp offers free, civil legal advice to low-income Texans and a variety of resources that provide free and reliable information about civil legal issues

Are you trying to help a loved one who is currently incarcerated?

If you want to help a loved one who is currently in jail or prison, the Texas Inmate Families Association might be able to help you. This organization provides support, information, and advocacy for members. Read the Texas Inmate Families Association's guide, Supporting Your Loved Ones, for more about how to help you support your incarcerated loved one.

There are sometimes resources available in facility libraries, such as the Jailhouse Lawyers Handbook or Jailhouse Lawyers Manual.

Only a lawyer can represent an incarcerated person. See Unauthorized Practice of Law.

How do I research criminal law issues?

TexasLawHelp does not offer help or provide comprehensive information on criminal law topics. The terms of its funding do not allow it.

Do legal research at a local law library for more information about the Texas criminal justice process. Research guides on Texas criminal law include the Harris County Law Library's Texas Criminal Law Resource Guide and the Texas State Law Library's section on criminal lawCriminal Procedure Forms (Justice Court Only) is a list of forms you can use in justice-court criminal cases.

Do you need help finding a court-appointed attorney?

If you have been charged with a crime but cannot afford an attorney, you have the right to assistance from a court-appointed attorney. Court-appointed attorneys are generally not available to help with civil cases. An exception is if someone tries to terminate your parental rights without your consent. The process for requesting a court-appointed attorney can differ throughout the state, but you must be diligent and thorough in making your request.

The Texas Fair Defense Project is an organization that aims to “improve the fairness of Texas’s criminal courts and ensure that all Texans have access to justice.” See its publication on how to request a criminal defense attorney. You may also contact TFDP if you think that your request for an attorney was improperly denied, you have been detained without an attorney who can advocate for your release, or you have been incarcerated or threatened with incarceration because you cannot afford to pay a fee, fine, or other criminal justice debt.

Where can I learn about challenging wrongful convictions?

Through the website And Justice For All, the Texas Young Lawyers Association and the Texas State Bar seek to educate lawyers on both sides of the bar and the general public to reduce the risk of wrongful convictions.

Related Articles

Related Forms

  • Texas Criminal Law Resource Guide (Harris County Law Library)

    The Harris County Bar Association offers this research guide on Texas criminal law.
  • How to Ask for a Court-Appointed Lawyer in Criminal Matters

    This handout from the Texas Fair Defense Project discusses how to ask for a court-appointed criminal defense lawyer.