Judicial Q&A: Judge Leah Shapiro

(Note: As I have done in past elections, I am running a series of Q&As for judicial candidates in contested Democratic primaries. This is intended to help introduce the candidates and their experiences to those who plan to vote in March. I am running these responses in the order that I receive them from the candidates. Much more information about Democratic primary candidates, including links to the interviews and judicial Q&As, can be found on Erik Manning’s spreadsheet.

Judge Leah Shapiro

1. Who are you and in which court do you preside?

Judge Leah Shapiro presiding over the 315th District Court.

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

The 315th District Court is one of the only three district courts in all of Harris County handling juvenile delinquency and dependency matters. With dependency matters, the 315th District Court hears cases when there are allegations of abuse and neglect of a child. The 315th District Court also handles delinquency matters, when a child is accused of committing a criminal offense between the ages of 10 and 17. The 315th also presides over marriages and adoptions for all families, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.

The 315th District Court presides over two specialty courts in Harris County, Court 360 (the juvenile mental health court), and the C.A.R.E. Court (the juvenile sex trafficking court)—of which I was a founding member in 2011. C.A.R.E. (Creating Acceptance Recovery Empowerment Court) Court serves youth identified as being actively engaged in or at risk of becoming involved in commercial sexual exploitation/sex trafficking by offering specialized supervision and therapeutic services. C.A.R.E. Court works to address the underlying trauma associated with each youth’s at-risk behaviors. Court 360 focuses on helping youth with a diagnoses and their families in identifying and addressing youths’ underlying mental health concerns associated with their at-risk behaviors.

The 315th District Court has a Dual Status Docket dedicated to meet the specific needs for youth who are in the custody of the State of Texas (CPS) and involved in the juvenile justice system (additional information below).

3. What have been your main accomplishments during your time on this bench?

I am relentless in my pursuit of equity and fairness in the courtroom, a course I intend to stay if re-elected, often working against the inertia of the system. For example, shortly after taking office I immediately moved against entrenched systems and ended indiscriminate shackling of youth in the courtroom, the decades-old practice in our county in which detained youth, no matter their age or charge, appear in court in “all-fours”—with hands in cuffs, feet shackled together, both connected by a chain between. Everyone should appear before the court with the same dignity and respect, and that’s why I ended the practice for detained youth in 315th District Court.

The 315th District Court piloted and now maintains the only Dual Status Docket in Harris County—a docket designed to meet the specific needs for youth who are in the custody of the State of Texas (CPS) and involved in the juvenile justice system. Dually involved youth are some of our most vulnerable youth, with increased likelihood of recidivism and homelessness. We dedicate a docket to their needs, hear from them directly with both teams present to ensure maximum collaboration, and guarantee that youth voices are heard and that we hold agencies accountable. This specialized Dual Status Docket eliminates duplicate services, provides individual hearings with all stakeholders, and increases overall system accountability.

Since taking the bench three years ago, the court has reduced the active case docket by half when it comes to dependency matters, with allegations of abuse and neglect of children.  This means that not only are we efficiently handling the new cases assigned to the court, but we are also addressing the backlog inherited in 2019.  As such, families are getting resolutions in a timely manner and children are more quickly connecting with their forever families.

I have used my experience to reduce pre-adjudication detentions and disposed of the most felony delinquency cases with the lowest percentage dispositions to Texas Juvenile Justice Department (TJJD). That means we are keeping kids in their homes and closer to home and integrating their families in their rehabilitation. We accomplished this during a pandemic, with appropriate safety measures, because of my dedication and diligence to keeping the 315th District Court open and accessible to continue to serve the residents of Harris County.

I also understand the court system’s duty to taxpayers, which is why I responsibly stewarded Harris County tax dollars by leading all Juvenile District Courts in appointments to the Public Defender’s Office.

4. What do you hope to accomplish in your courtroom going forward?

I have been working on establishing a court in the community. Through practices learned during COVID, the courts have an opportunity to eliminate the traditional party appearances and allow greater access to justice. The court is exploring, with partners in the Fifth Ward and the Center for Urban Transformation, Harris County District Clerk, Constable Pct. 1, District Attorney’s Office, Harris County Juvenile Probation Department, Harris County Public Defender’s Office, and other stakeholders the possibility of holding court in the evening with the remote appearances from a JP courts or location within the neighborhood. This would eliminate the cost of transportation, parking, and reduce time families spend attending court. In addition, remote appearances can reduce the negative impact system involvement has on a youth’s education. The child will no longer miss a day of school due to a court setting.

5. Why is this race important?

A better justice system creates safer and stronger communities. The decisions made in the court directly impact the individuals involved, families, and our community. We have made amazing improvements in court efficiency, access to justice and the treatment of individuals who are system involved. There is work to be done. Children and families deserve a judge who has experience in the law and understands systems to continue to make positive changes for those the court serves.

6. Why should people vote for you in March?

With 10+ years in juvenile justice and 15+ years of public service to the justice system in Harris County—as a judge, public defender, and prosecutor—I have the experience, knowledge, and legal understanding to continue to advance both delinquency and dependency issues, to positively impact system practices, and to change the approach of how we address the needs of children and families who are system-involved in Harris County. I am the only candidate in this race with jury trial experience and to have handled both dependency and delinquency cases. It is my honor and privilege to serve in the role as Judge of the 315th , a role to which I was elected in 2018. Since then, I implemented innovative change that addresses the needs of children in the justice and child welfare systems, and applied a more community-centered approach. There is much more work to do to accomplish truly systemic change-which is why I am seeking re-election for the 315th District Court.

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