As many as 900 Harris County teens, some as young as 14 and most of them minorities from broken homes and mean streets, have been certified as dangerous enough to be charged and jailed as adults over the last decade, at times facing prison sentences as long as a life.
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.
According to documents obtained by Texas Appleseed in a lawsuit:
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.”
It's too early to tell whether the changing of the guard at the Harris District Attorneys office will influence this, but if not, I hope Texas Appleseed's lawsuit tears them a new one. Of all the decisions that merit individual consideration instead of a rubber stamp, surely these cases stand out as deserving extra scrutiny, not a a quickie decision based on a sloppily filled out form with inadequate representation for the youth.