Harris County juvenile facilities criticized

Given the state of the jails, this should not come as a surprise.

Local judges, probation employees and others are operating under a patchwork of sometimes quirky standards for deciding which youths get sent to Harris County’s crowded juvenile detention facilities, according to a new study.

One juvenile court judge, for example, orders youths with cases in his court into a detention facility if they miss school seven days, a report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation found. Other youths who possibly should be detained before trial are released because there is no space to hold them.

“The development of a uniform, objective approach to detention decision-making should be a high priority,” the report says.

A committee that will be chaired by County Judge Ed Emmett and include Houston Police Chief Harold Hurtt, Commissioner Sylvia Garcia and juvenile court Judge Mike Schneider will hold its initial meeting Wednesday to discuss ways of implementing the report’s recommendations.

I’ve searched around but can’t find a copy of the report online. Anyone out there know where it is?

The report said the district attorney’s office clogs up the juvenile justice system and takes time away from serious cases by filing charges against all youths accused of Class A and B misdemeanors.

Class B misdemeanors include shoplifting, possession of less than two ounces of marijuana and evading arrest. Class A misdemeanors include assaults related to fighting and thefts.

Harvey Hetzel, director of the county Juvenile Probation Department, said the system would be less burdened if the district attorney’s office deferred prosecution in some of these cases.

But Bill Hawkins, chief of the District Attorney’s juvenile division, said juvenile crime would rise if prosecutors didn’t hold youths accountable and bring them to court. In Harris County, too many juvenile cases went the deferred prosecution route until the mid-1990s, and juvenile crime increased, he said.

“We’d be turning back the clock to something that was a disaster before,” Hawkins said. “It’s important that kids come to court and see some formal level of accountability in court.”

Okay, but have we learned anything from that earlier experience that may help us to better decide which cases need full prosecution and which ones can be handled with a lighter touch? Saying “we tried that before and it didn’t work” isn’t really constructive here, because the opposite approach isn’t working, either. If “too many cases” went to deferred prosecution in the 1990s, then maybe there’s some number between what we did then and what we’re doing now that would represent an improvement. Let’s keep an open mind here.

As with related issues like the state of the jails and the public defender’s office proposal, this is both about better justice and better management of scarce resources. If you’re not looking for ways to improve, you’re not being fiscally responsible. Take the report as a starting point and see what can and should be done. This should not be controversial. Grits has more.

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