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Juvenile justice in Harris County

Is rather an oxymoron, it seems. Apparently, the process for certifying juveniles to be tried as adults, which according to the DA’s office is supposed to be only done on “the worst of the worst”, is a mere formality.

In 2007 and 2008 alone, Harris County juvenile judges transferred 160 teens’ cases to the adult system — more than nine of the largest urban counties in Texas combined, according to a Chronicle analysis of statewide certifications by county.

The certifications are based on allegations they committed felonies, including robbery, murder, car theft and drug possession.

But such rulings are so common here — and so nearly identical — that they have prompted a legal attack from local attorneys and juvenile justice experts who call them “rubber-stamped” and “assembly line” injustices that violate children’s rights.

The result: “virtual destruction” of dozens of juveniles who are dumped and damaged in adult prisons and “could otherwise turn their lives around,” claims nonprofit Texas Appleseed, according to documents filed in the case. The nonprofit is part of a pending legal challenge of the 2008 certification of a Houston teen charged with murder.

Attorney Christene Wood, a family friend of that teen, said that during his hearing last year the juvenile judge surfed the Internet, laughed and never once made eye contact with the boy. “The certification process here is an absolute joke,” Wood said.

[…]

Before certifying a child, juvenile judges are supposed to hold a hearing and review evidence about the seriousness and nature of the offense, a child’s maturity and background, the likelihood of rehabilitation and the need for protection for the community, according to state law.

Historically, more than 90 percent of the DA’s recommendations for certifications were approved, county statistics indicate. The pace slowed somewhat in the first four months of 2009: 22 requests for certification; six declined.

The hearings tend to be quick — as short as 15 minutes — and based mostly on police statements and probation officers’ reports, according to a review of 2008 case files and interviews with attorneys.

Judges used fill-in-the-blank form rulings with very similar findings, the Chronicle found. In two cases, the forms were written so sloppily that girls certified as adults were referred to as “he.”

Few juvenile defense attorneys asked outside experts to evaluate their 14- to 17-year-old clients. In fact, some children get no formal psychiatric evaluation at all for potential mental health or disability issues before being transferred to adult court, according to records and interviews.

University of Houston law professor Ellen Marrus, an expert in juvenile law, said many court-appointed lawyers don’t “bother to work up the case and a lot of the orders are rubber-stamped.”

Heck of a system we’ve got there, isn’t it? I hope that this pending legal challenge leads to a lot more specific information about the judges involved and their less-than-precise behavior, since all of them are up for re-election next year. Between this and the probate courts, the case for change in the judiciary is as clear in 2010 as it was last year. Grits has more.

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One Comment

  1. Geoff Greeley says:

    Charles, thanks for bringing this up, but it’s worth noting that the Houston Press two weeks ago ran a huge investigation on this.

    http://www.houstonpress.com/2009-05-28/news/for-their-own-good/

    http://www.houstonpress.com/2009-05-28/news/for-their-own-good-a-chance-at-rehabilitation/

    The Chron article actually uses the exact same sources, anecdotes, etc. A little scummy on their end not to even mention where they got most of their info, no?