With a District Attorney's GOP runoff in full swing, here's an issue I hope both candidates address before Harris County voters go back to the polls -
Decision making in Texas' largest county about juvenile cases is haphazard and ill-focused, with frequent misdemeanor referrals by the District Attorney's office clogging the system with low-level cases that detract from more serious offenders, according to a new study by the Annie Casey Foundation. Reported Bill Murphy at the Houston Chronicle ("Report criticizes Harris County juvenile facilities," March 24):
Mr. Hawkins has a little revisionist history going on here to justify their current practices. Houston has one of the highest crime rates of any big city in the nation, so his fear that the town will go back to the bad old days seems just a bit contrived. Some of the clogs are caused by a short-staffed juvenile probation department that can't timely process its evaluations of youth:
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.
The report is a product of the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, a wing of the Casey Foundation. The initiative will continue to advise the county and its officials on ways to thin out detention facilities.
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. ...
The county spent $58 million to renovate the former Criminal Courts Building at Fannin and Congress and turn it into the Juvenile Justice Center.
Within months of its opening two years ago, juvenile court judges complained that lower-level floors reeked of sewage, courtroom doors were noisy and courtrooms lacked audio-visual equipment.
The report said some youths are held unnecessarily while awaiting psychological evaluations sought by the Juvenile Probation Department.Waiting around in detention because you haven't been evaluated isn't contributing to public safety, as Hawkins absurdly implied, it's deterring it, keeping kids in detention longer who don't need to be there and diverting resources from more serious offenders. I couldn't find a copy of the report online, but here's the website for the foundations Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative. I'm sure it will be posted there soon.
"Surely there could be less of these (evaluations), and most of them could be completed on an out-of-custody basis," the report said. "The cost of this current practice may be exceptionally high."