Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

juvenile justice

The next frontier in criminal justice reform

We need to lock up fewer kids for bad reasons.

Hundreds of juveniles are jailed in Harris County often for weeks at a time for infractions as minor as failing drugs tests, violating curfews, running away or failing to attend school classes or rehabilitative programs, according to county records.

The records show a “pattern and practice” of detaining juveniles for technical violations that should instead be handled through the probation system, according to attorneys and juvenile justice advocates.

“You’re not complying with the terms of probation, but you’re not actually a risk to public safety,” said Elizabeth Henneke, an attorney with the Lone Star Justice Alliance, which advocates against incarcerating juvenile offenders.

“You never want to have a technical violation, especially for a kid, result in detention, because we know the negative effects,” she said. “Even a short amount of time can be problematic for kids, but long, protracted, weeks out of school, weeks out of your home environment – that can have really big consequences for them.”

Of the 1,055 juveniles cited for a probation violation in 2016, nearly 73 percent were detained, a proportion Henneke said is alarming, particularly in a county where the 250-capacity juvenile justice center has faced recurrent overcrowding problems for several years.

It is the largest percentage of juveniles ordered detained on probation violations since at least 2003, when 69 percent of 1,502 juveniles were detained, according to data from the Harris County Juvenile Probation Department.

The most recent 2017 data, which goes through Oct. 15, shows that 73 percent of juveniles continued to be jailed for probation violations – an average of 55 kids each day.

The average length of time spent behind bars on the violations ranged from nine days for leaving the county without permission to 30 days for violating special probationary terms, which can include specific judge-ordered requirements such as routine drug assessments or compliance with taking medication.

The Trib then went and wrote an even longer story on the same topic.

“Harris County is bucking the trend,” said Michele Deitch, an attorney and senior lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin who specializes in Texas juvenile justice policy. “All around the country, and certainly all around the state, the numbers are down in detention.

“The need for the beds just isn’t there anymore,” Deitch said. “So the idea that this one county is experiencing an increase … that should raise a lot of questions.”

The overcrowding affects kids and families far beyond the Houston area: It is one reason lawmakers decided not to raise the age of adult criminal responsibility in Texas from 17 to 18 last year. Seventeen-year-olds accused of crimes in Texas are usually sent to an adult county jail; the “raise the age” bill would have made them part of the juvenile justice system instead.

Harris County’s juvenile probation chief, Tom Brooks, said the detention center’s overcrowding is mostly due to “a high number of egregious offenders” — kids accused of crimes like armed robbery and assault — who often stay in detention longer.

Brooks added that the county has worked hard to stop unnecessarily locking up kids. Last year, nearly 2,000 fewer kids were booked into detention compared to 2010, according to county data. The ones that are left “actually are here for a legitimate reason, and their due process takes longer,” Brooks said.

But data obtained by The Texas Tribune — along with interviews with experts, parents and advocates — suggest there’s more to the story. Local officials might blame the overcrowding on bad kids, but experts say it’s more about a bad system in Harris County, where local officials plan to build a new juvenile detention center at an estimated cost of $65-70 million.

The data from Harris County’s juvenile probation department shows:

  • The average number of kids held in the detention center charged with minor offenses such as trespass, theft and violating probation — things that some experts say shouldn’t land kids behind bars at all — increased by 64 percent from 2010 to 2017. Meanwhile, the average number held for violent crimes like armed robbery and rape, called “felonies against persons,” increased by about 46 percent.
  • Minor offenders were locked up in the detention center for an average of nearly three weeks in 2017, twice as long as in 2010.
  • From 2010 to 2017, the average number of African-American youth held in the juvenile detention center more than doubled, and the number detained despite being labeled “low risk” has increased by 75 percent.

Experts say this is an unusual trend when it comes to juvenile justice. It’s becoming widely accepted that imprisoning kids — and even adults — for low-level crimes is probably doing more harm than good. Taking someone away from their home and school for a minor offense like shoplifting, and placing them alongside those accused of far more serious crimes, is bad for the child and for society, they say.

“Anytime you disrupt the kids’ routine, you take them out of the home, away from whatever stable influences they have … It’s not a good situation,” Deitch said. She added that the Harris County data suggests “there’s something very punitive going on.”

Michael Schneider, one of the judges who handles juvenile delinquency cases in Harris County, expressed concern after seeing the data. “Why is the increase in detention greater than the increase in violent crime?” he asked.

Paul Holland, an associate law professor at Seattle University who studies national juvenile justice policy, called what’s happening in Harris County “alarming.” He said the trend in detention there can’t just be blamed on an increase in violent crime; local decisions are probably having an impact, too.

“It really does seem like it’s a system thing and not a kid thing,” Holland said.

There’s a whole lot more, go read it. So just to review:

1) These kids were on probation, meaning they had committed lesser offenses to begin with.
2) They were put in jail for breaking a rule, not a law. Kids do break rules sometimes. It’s what kids do.
3) Putting kids in jail leads to all kinds of bad effects, from missed school to exposing them to real criminals to endangering their safety.
4) It costs money to detain and guard these kids, and detaining them does nothing to further the rehabilitative efforts that probation was supposed to foster.
5) Anyone want to bet that the kids who do get detained for probation violations will turn out to be disproportionately black and Latino?

Let’s do less of this, okay? And if you’re looking for a political solution, remember the names of Juvenile Court Judges Glenn Devlin and John Phillips, both Republicans and both on the ballot this year. Different judges will be our best shot at getting different results.

Decriminalizing truancy

This is important.

Sen. John Whitmire

Sen. John Whitmire

Senate Bill 106, filed by Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, would make major overhauls to current truancy law, including referring students to a civil court that hears truancy cases rather than a criminal court.

Under current law, children as young as 12 who miss 10 or more days or parts of days in a 6-month period and their parents must appear in court, where they face a Class C misdemeanor charge and a fine up to $500. School districts can file truancy charges when a student misses at least three full or partial days in a four-week period.

Advocates told the Senate Criminal Justice Committee that many truant students miss school because they are are pregnant, bullied or are the sole financial providers for their families. They said current law unfairly punishes them, labeling them a criminal at an early age.

“We have to find a way to encourage students and we’re finding that if you come through with a punitive manner it just doesn’t work,” said Yvonne Williams, a Travis County judge who deals with dozens of truancy cases a week.

Sen. Whitmire is acting on the tireless advocacy of Texas Appleseed, which has been banging the drum over the school-to-prison pipeline for several years. Decriminalizing truancy is at the top of their legislative agenda for this session. It’s great to see this move forward, especially (as Grits reported from the hearing) in the face of some heated but misleading opposition. Kudos to all for this, but let’s make sure it crosses the finish line.

Meanwhile, Sen. Whitmire has some other reforms on the burner as well.

Legislation that would take the biggest step in eight years to reform Texas’ juvenile-justice system by keeping more teen-aged offenders in community and regional treatment centers, rather than in a remote state lockup, was approved late Tuesday by a state Senate committee.

Under Senate Bill 1630, up to 80 percent of juvenile offenders who are now sent to state lockups could instead be held in local treatment programs – a move that could significantly downsize the state’s long-troubled youth corrections system and save taxpayers perhaps as much as $40 million.

“This is the next huge step to keep the youth closer to their communities in programs that work, instead of state programs that have not,” said state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, the author of the measure. “We’ll not only have better results, but this will save money.”

Officials and justice experts testified during a public hearing the plan, if approved, would mark the most significant change in Texas’ juvenile justice system in years – a change recommended seven years ago, when the number of youths in state lockups was cut by more than half in favor of local treatment and rehabilitation programs.

Under the bill, youths serving time for so-called indeterminate sentences – most held for less-serious crimes and who remain in the program until they successfully complete it – would be sent to regional facilities, many of them operated by counties, instead of the state’s five high-security lockups that more resemble prisons than rehabilitation centers.

Tom Brooks, chief juvenile probation officer of Harris County, and his counterpart in Bexar County, Lynne Wilkerson, were among a long list of witnesses voicing support for the legislation, which has also been endorsed by officials of the Texas Juvenile Justice Department.

[…]

Whitmire said Senate budget writers refocused the agency’s two-year budget to fund more local rehabilitation and treatment programs and to hire more parole officers.

“It currently costs about $140,000 a year to house a youth in a state facility, and it costs just $60,000 in a local or regional program – with much better outcomes,” Whitmire said.

I don’t see how anyone can argue with that. Again, I’m glad to see this moving, and I hope to see it go the distance.

There is one reform that won’t happen at this time, however.

Armed with research on the dangers 17-year-olds face in adult jails and prisons, children’s groups and criminal justice advocates have made the cause a top priority this session. Texans Care for Children convened a summit on the issue last fall, and a January report from a House committee has recommended changing the law.

Texas’ law, the committee notes, is out of step with both federal law and all but eight other states. The report notes research that says adolescent brains are still developing, which calls into question whether they should be held as culpable as adults, and suggests they might have a better chance at rehabilitation.

Sheriffs and jailers have supported the idea as well, in part because federal law already requires them to keep 17-year-olds out of “sight and sound” from older inmates, which is an expensive proposition. In practice, especially in smaller county facilities, 17-year-olds are confined alone instead. Juvenile court judges in Bexar and Harris counties have also signed on, editorial boards at the Houston Chronicle, San Antonio Express-News, Austin American-Statesman have all called for change this year.

With such a drumbeat of support, moving 17-year-olds into the juvenile justice system seems like just the sort of research-based, bipartisan idea that a reform-minded Legislature would embrace. On Wednesday afternoon, a House committee will hear a handful of bills to do so.

But for now at least, the proposal is likely headed nowhere in the Senate, where the most visible opposition has come from an unlikely source: Whitmire.

“I personally, philosophically, believe that if a 17-year-old commits a violent act, I see no reason to change that they wouldn’t be [treated] as an adult. I just think that a 17-year-old knows right from wrong,” Whitmire told the Observer. “I just am not of the opinion that it’s a broken system, and I’m not prepared to change the law to assist the sheriffs in the management of their jails.”

Well, we’ll have to disagree on that. I think the wind is blowing in the direction of less incarceration, and we should take advantage of any opportunity we can to pursue that. Maybe next session for this part of it.

Complaining about the public defender office

At least one judge doesn’t like the new Harris County Public Defenders office.

“In short there is no evidence that a public defender’s office can be of any benefit to the Harris County Juvenile Justice system,” state District Judge John Phillips said last month in an open letter.

Chief among Phillips’ complaints is that the public defender system in the juvenile courts costs two and half times more than the system of appointments he uses, a number denied by those connected to the office.

Phillips said the average cost per case is $649, compared to $264 for assigned lawyers.

Alex Bunin, who oversees the public defender’s office, said Phillips’ numbers are wrong. He said the judge cited a preliminary feasibility study with estimates that were not accurate.

“Those numbers are not meaningful,” he said.

Bunin said the costs are closer to actual public defender averages across the state. Established public defender offices in Texas average $406 per case against $540 for appointed attorneys.

“The point is that the numbers are fairly comparable,” Bunin said. “There’s no support for ‘two and half times the cost.’ ”

Bunin said a comprehensive review has been commissioned and is expected in about six months.

“We’ll know things about the quality of our work, as well as the cost effectiveness of it,” Bunin said. “When we get ready for midyear budget, we’ll have something on paper.”

I found Judge Phillips’ letter here. The story references an open letter in response to Judge Phillips from Lawrence Finder and George “Mac” Secrest, but I was not able to locate it. (Dear Houston Chronicle: Would it kill you to include links to stuff like this that you reference in the online version of your stories?) Not being familiar with the system, Judge Phillips’ letter and the documents he included as evidence did not make much sense to me. I do agree with Bunin that the costs cited in an initial feasibility study don’t really mean much any more, and that the actual costs that will be reflected in their midyear budget will tell a much more accurate story. Judge Phillips also cites a number of reforms that the juvenile courts have implemented to save money, to which I say Great! Good job! But I don’t see why those reforms and the Public Defender office should be mutually exclusive, and even if they were that doesn’t address the need for the Public Defender office in other courts. And finally, not to be crass, but I’d like to know what if any connections there are between Judge Phillips and Gary Polland. Judge Phillips complained that supporters of the Public Defender office have politicized the issue, but that is quite clearly a two-way street. Let’s see what their budget request looks like and we’ll go from there.

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.