Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Foundation report criticizes Harris County DA for unnecessary detention, prosecution of juveniles

UPDATE FROM THE RUMOR MILL: I'm hearing through the grapevine that Harvey Hetzel, director of the Harris County Juvenile Probation Department who is quoted in the Houston Chronicle article, resigned today, possibly in response to this report. More on this development as I get it. MORE: Hetzel did step down, but the reasons are unclear and could relate to employee grievances lodged behind the scenes.

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):

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.

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:
The report said some youths are held unnecessarily while awaiting psychological evaluations sought by the Juvenile Probation Department.

"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."

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.


Anonymous said...

I'm not saying, I'm just saying in my experience, releasing a kid from detention and getting them to show up at a psychological evaluators office, or even at the probation offices for the exam is successful about 40% the time. 'Course were all these kids released pending evaluation, detention bed population would decrease. If that's the goal (decreased population), fine. If the goal is to get them evaluated and into court, then it's not all that good an idea.

I apprediate all the grand ideas of the foundations, constitutionalists, libertarians, and spoon benders, but, siometimes you need to get practical and real.


Anonymous said...

I have read the reports of youth committed to TYC from Harris County. They are not all that complex. Sounds to me like a scapegoat. Harris county is also the biggest contributor to TYC so I don't think they are necessarily lacking in their treatment of more serious cases, except that maybe they pull the TYC trigger whenever possible. Harris County has problems.

Has there been any discussion of ongoing problems with criminal justice in Harris County related to Hurricane Katrina? Were things any better before then?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Plato, I hope you know I respect the difficulties of your job and dealing with this class of kids. But one of the big problems with the juvie probation world is that y'all expect kids and their families to have transportation, etc., and be pro-active in a way that is both difficult and new for many of them. Basically do no home visits and require them to come to your offices for every little thing.

I've been wondering lately (especially after recently driving a neighborhood youngster to a probation appointment two months in a row), why probation departments, juvie and adult, don't just kill two birds with one stone and do home visits (during curfew hours, for juveniles), for stuff like psych evaluations and monthly PO visits. That would improve supervision b/c you'd see them in their home environment instead of in the PO's cubicle, plus solve some of the no-show problem you're talking about.

Whaddya think, is that another "spoon bender" solution?

Anonymous said...

Grits - not sure if Plato responded to your post but wanted to add my two scents for informational purposes.

You asked about home visits and most juvenile probation departments do them (along with school visits and curfew checks - all depends on the level of supervision) plus keep in mind the stability of the home environment for many of these kids. Can get a little chaotic and not the best places for a lengthy visit to discuss individual case plans, perform drug testing if needed, etc.

Second, the kid is on probation so they should bear some responsibility in putting some effort into a once a month visit. Kudos to you for taking the time to help a neighbor by the way. We've had kids and parents call in with transportation issues or illness. Those absences are always excused and re-scheduled. Even when they don't call in we get a hold of the kid/family to see what happened. There is responsibility on all parties and the JPO has the brunt of it.

You also mentioned pro-active in your post and that is exactly what we are pushing for these parents and kids to be. It is their life and they must be pro-active with what happens.

Ofcourse, I'm in one of the smaller counties in central Texas so supervision, visits are all a little bit different. Should come visit sometime. Give ya a crash course on juvenile probation. lol

Just my thoughts and thanks for the forum Grits !!

Anonymous said...

Above Anon - I am a big fan of not reinventing the wheel, so if your county has found a way to make this system work, tell all. The overall recidivism rate for Texas youths is upwards of 50%. That doesn't say much for the current "reactive" approaches. Once they become adults, a large number of these same kids end up in TDCJ. I can say that in 25 years of experience in education, early intervention is the best, proactive approach. Most of the kids in TYC have a history of family, learning and mental health issues before they hit the big time. As a society we are given two choices for the responsibilty we have to care for the next generation, pay for care now or pay for the expenses for a lifetime. This is as practical as it gets. Texas should not continue to be the example for how bad things are.

Anonymous said...


In the county I am familiar with, home visits by probation officers, at least monthly, is mandated. Not only that, the department contracts with family therapists who take the therapy to the homes (for select probationers)on a weekly basis. Also, the county distributed probation officers throughout the city and county to satellite offices (based on #'s of probationers in certain hot spot zip codes) to alleviate many transportation issues.

Probation Officers need to be in the communities where their clientel live and go to school, not some large government building on the outskirts of town that is out of sight - out of mind.

Also, the Casey Foundation initiative is focused on de-populating juvenile detention centers. That is their goal, period, other than trying to deal with the issue of overrepresentation of minorities in said lockups. Not surprising they'd come up with solutions based on their focus despite the inner workings of departments and the system in general.

My only point is that "reports" at times do not take into consideration the practalities of the day to day operations of a department or system. Seldom to these "reports" take into consideration the public safety issue, accountability of the violator, etc. It's all about reducing detention population, and by God, that's what the recommendations will be every time.

There is lots of room for improvement in this ol' system notwithstanding a little "spoon bending" every once in a while.

Peace and Love.


Gritsforbreakfast said...

Plato, sounds like you're doing a lot better job than many departments with home visits, etc.. Congrats on that.

I'd categorize what the Casey Foundation is saying differently than you have. Their goal is to reduce incarceration, true, so they're trying to find ways to reduce the number of kids in detention centers without harming public safety. If there are backed up waiting lists for evaluation, some kids will need to stay, some won't, but evaluating them more quickly will reduce the number of kids needlessly there waiting.

To me that's not the violator failing to be accountable, or a failure to consider public safety concerns, it's the justice system letting lack of resources prevent it from doing IT'S part in a timely fashion. Accountability works both ways!

And to 11:55, while certainly the youth must "bear some responsibility" to get to their PO meetings, if they're too young to drive or don't have a car, which is most juvie defendants, it's also imposing on others, as in my case, or more typically family members who're shuttling them around during work hours. Kids in such circumstances only have so many chits with people who support them, and it may not be the best use to waste them on trips to the PO if the purpose is merely a lesson in personal responsibility (which is also enhanced by checking at home unannounced to ensure curfew compliance).

Thanks for the comments, folks.

Anonymous said...

As a former juvenile PO, it is the same old song and dance. There are just not enough JPOs on staff to attend to and properly supervise these kids on the personal level that is needed and the professional level that is expected. You do as much hand-holding with the families as you do with the kids. Supervising a juvenile is much more labor intensive than supervising an adult (adult POs, fire away) and given my current career, yes, I am very familiar with both systems. I don't know many JPOs who got into the field for the hell of it; most sincerely like and want to help these kids. Many were these kids a few years ago! But faced with bureaucracy, often out of touch administration and judiciary, outrageously high caseloads, overburdened school systems, etc., it is a losing battle they are fighting. Not many want to keep these kids locked up any longer than necessary but what is necessary and practical is up for debate.

Anonymous said...

I hate to see Harvey Hetzel retire. Not only is he a good person, he has been an exceptionally good administrator for the Harris County Juvenile Probation Department. After more than three decades of distinguished service with the agency, he has more than earned his retirement.

Anonymous said...

I worked in the Harris County juvenile courts a few years ago. The most disturbing thing, by far, for me was the way the prosecutors acted. One child in particular had a history of trouble. As his lawyer, I knew that a great deal of these troubles stemmed from his home life - family history of mental illness, including a mentally ill mother; a father that ran off (he was a drug addict even before he left); and a sister that was murdered. Never once had the county sent him to a facility that could cope with his dual demons of drug use and mental illness. When he came back into court the last time I saw him, the Chief DA for that court was happy. I was sickened that a grown woman, whose job was to see justice done, was practically joyful at seeing a child ruin his life. She relished her arguements to the court, once referring to him as a "crime wave." Prosecutors like her are cold, heartless individuals and have no business deciding what justice should be, much less dealing with juveniles. The reason the juvenile system is set up differently from the adult system is to rehabiliatte, not so prosecutors like her can take glee in sending a child to kiddie prison.

Anonymous said...


This is interesting to me as I've just finished a section of my book describing a split between the Harris County DA and the juvenile probation dept in the late 1950s and early 60s.

Basically, the DA wanted to get tough, lower the age for transfer, etc, and the JPD argued for more prevention services, more staff for those services, and greater understanding of the causes of juvenile crime.

And here we go again.


Anonymous said...

Grits --- regarding my 11:55 post and your response, I didn't contend the only reason for one time a month visit was strictly to teach personal responsibility.... the stability of an office environment is paramount for us to do many of the other required tasks we have including inidividualized case planning, drug testing, etc. As stated in the first paragraph of my previous post, many of these home environments aren't conducive to doing all of these things. Officer safety has to always be a concern as well. Most times it's not safety from the kid we would worry about. JPOs are not allowed to carry weapons.... It is a little difficult to explain unless you've been to some of these homes.

Just trying to help you understand what we do as I believe the general public has no idea about how JUVENILE probation functions.

Regarding detention - kids can not by law aimlessly sit in detention waiting for Court wthout representation and a petition must be filed within 15 working days of the juvenile's first detention hearing which is required within 2 days of his detention. Not that it matters but I agree with Plato in that " the Casey Foundation initiative is focused on de-populating juvenile detention centers. That is their goal, period, other than trying to deal with the issue of overrepresentation of minorities in said lockups."

Response to Anon on my previous post at 11:55 - We don't have it perfect by any means. We understand how the system functions and no one way of doing this works for every kid. We try and adapt to each individual kid with deal with. Example : We have anger management classes set up but the groups of kids we are currently dealing with don't show a need. Then we don't have anger management class. Got a bunch of kids having difficulty in school with behavior and disipline then we have our counselor do a school survival class for these kids.

Regarding statistics - I am always suspect of statistics. Our County sent one kid to TYC in 2007 but TYC reports that we sent two. Why? The child was currently on probation and we filed a Motion to Revoke along with the new felony offense for which he was picked up for. Kid pled true to the new offense and the Motion to Revoke at the same time. Judge Ordered TYC committment on both. He doesn't serve out two sentences. I'm sure someone will ask why would you do both. Because you have to provide TYC with all the information. Yes he was on probation and had multiple violations and despite efforts he then committed a new felony offense. 50% recidivism?? Over their lifetime, within a month? What were the re-offenses? It's easy to throw out stats but to get true meaning you have to dig a whole lot deeper than that.

Proactive is always best and we do that when we get them but maybe someone should look at the statistics/services from the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services. They get the state's prevention and intervention funding to prevent juvenile delinquency. Ofcourse, we do a First/Minor Offender Program to divert kids from the system when possible.

My last rant concerning juvenile justice - the back end of the system's, TYC, problem is related to management issues. I don't believe that sexual abuse nor poor health conditions were a part of the TYC strategy. Management didn't deal with these issues when they arose. I will contend that the structure should/could be adjusted but that relates to management again. Title III of the Texas Family Code outlines a good juvenile justice system as was entirely revamped by the late Dr. Dawson and Tony Fabello in 1995. And yes it has many changes since 1995. It's the practice and management of the back end of the system that has many issues. Keep in mind there is a 3 tiered system in Texas - prevention, probation and prison.

I promise Grits that I won't be posting as anonymous any longer. I shall either get me an identity or stop blogging on your blog. I'll leave that one up to you. Thanks for the discussion.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

"I won't be posting as anonymous any longer."

Actually it helps if you get an identity, even if you don't attach your name to it, because the comments don't get so confusing. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Hey Grits, you know, TYC parole is in the same boat. They're doing "home evaluations" over the phone. Go figure.

Not like in the old days when we'd go to the home. I remember a time when I had to go to Dixon Ave. in South Dallas where the projects were at it was Crip infested - just right after the L.A. riots occured after the L.A. Cops beat Rodney King. The Dixon Crips had a big ole' white sheet spray painted in blue saying "No Cracker Heads welcome." I'll never forget it.

I went anyway, and had no problems. I think the dude I was coming to get they wanted got because he was bringing 5.0 heat on their a-double-s'. And I'm as white as a cracker. Memories....

Anonymous said...

15 working days to wait in detention for the DA to file a petition is too long if a youth is not a danger to public safety. It's that simple. Especially, if (as in Harris County) the DA files a petition on every A & B misdemeanor. Technically, the juvenile probation dep't can dispose of those cases informally, but instead Harris County chooses to formally dispose of every delinquent act. That fills the facilities with low-level, non-violent offenders just waiting for the DA.

Yes, decreasing the number of youth in juvenile detention facilities is the goal of the Annie E. Casey Foundation -- and obviously Harris County's goal as well, since they invited AECF in. Keep in mind, that Harris County juvy detention facilities were chronically overcrowded and that voters rejected bond funding to build more beds. Officials were forced back to the drawing board by voters who were sick of business as usual and had to ask for AECF's help.

Plato @ 7:54, why not evaluate the youth more *quickly* while they're detained, then release 'em and see 'em in court? You didn't say that showing up at court was the problem.

Monk said...

Grits..... took a sec and signed up for an account so I won't be referred as Anon anymore.

Regarding anon at 10:10 - I am glad I went back and read that article from the Houston Chronicle and am completely baffled at why in the world a first time Class A or B misdemeanor would sit in detention for any longer than an initial 48 hours (maybe if that)much less require any court proceedings?????? If the article is true, that is very strange and is not the norm for juvenile justice in Texas.

For us only 25% of all referrals in 2007 even saw the inside of a detention center. Of that 25%, few were in their long term (your 15 working days) unless we were seeking out of home placement.

If you knew all the work it took on a case, you wouldn't think 15 working days was too much and I don't intend on explaining investigations and the complexities here.

Difficult for me to speak of Harris County's practices but the Texas Family Code outlines the reasons a juvenile can be placed in detention.

6 reasons for the initial detention of a juvenile taken into custody:

(b) A child taken into custody may be detained prior to
hearing on the petition only if:
(1) the child is likely to abscond or be removed from the jurisdiction of the court;
(2) suitable supervision, care, or protection for the child is not being provided by a parent, guardian, custodian, or other person;
(3)the child has no parent, guardian, custodian, or
other person able to return the child to the court when required;
(4) the child may be dangerous to himself or herself or the child may threaten the safety of the public if released;
(5) the child has previously been found to be a delinquent child or has previously been convicted of a penal offense punishable by a term in jail or prison and is likely to
commit an offense if released; or
(6) the child's detention is required under Subsection (f).

Subsection (f) is if a handgun was involved in the offense .

In order for a juvenile to remain in detention beyond 48 hours or over a weekend, a detention hearing must be held that requires the judge to make a finding of one of the first 5.

Anonymous said...

10:10 - The 7th (unwritten) reason for detaining a child pending evaluation is that it is more convenient for the probation department, prosecution, and yes, the defense attorney. The kid is always in a place where everyone can put their hands on him for whatever reason plus, he's not out reoffending. Not saying it's done a lot, but I'm just saying.


Anonymous said...

Here is a quote from the Casey document, page 14:
There is a practice of restraining out of control kids by using mechanical restraints (handcuffs and leg irons) to a fixed object...Though the department is not technically violating Texas Juvenile Probation Commission Standards...we suggest the collaborative discuss discontinuing this practice as soon as possible.

Anonymous said...

concerned employee, you ask us not to use handcuffs and or leg cuffs to restrain an out of control resident. so what would you suggest when a resident in detention is trying to assault a staff member because he or she knows there is nothing that will be done except to be place in thier rooms a few hours. i wish all of you so called experts would come put a blue shirt on and work a unit fo a week and then tell me and everyother detetion officer how bad we are. i have worked in this feild for several years and it gets worst all the time.the reasson it get worse is because tjpc and all the rest of the helping hands have taken away the authority away from the supervisors and staff that have to work on a day to day basis with these redidence. these children will spit on you,throw fecises and urine on you if you instruct to do something or you have to take away something because they were acting out or refused to follow instruction giving by a officer. please dont get me wrong we all love our jobs and being able to reach one child makes us want to come to work everyday. but we all want to go home at night safe and unharmed from our duties as detention officers.