HOUSTON — Throughout Texas, it’s clear: Even as the state’s population has skyrocketed in recent years, kids are getting into a lot less trouble with the law.
Prosecutors are filing fewer criminal charges against them. Statewide, juvenile prisons are holding fewer youth. And counties are keeping fewer kids in detention while they wait for their cases to get resolved.
So why has the the juvenile detention center in Harris County — home to Houston, America’s fourth-largest city — been bursting at the seams?
Just like the rest of the state, Harris County has seen fewer juveniles enter the criminal justice system over the past decade. Yet the population of the 210-cell juvenile detention
center, which mostly holds kids between 10 and 16 years old who have not yet been convicted of a crime, has spiked in recent years.
Last year, an average of close to 300 kids stayed there each day, up from just over 160 in previous years. The population spike has forced some youth to sleep in common areas, in portable beds that look like little plastic boats, and last year an average of two dozen kids had to be held in a separate building because the detention center was too full.
“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.
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.
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 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.
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.
Texas is one of just a handful of states that still prosecutes 17-year-olds as adults and sends them to adult jails and prisons. There’s a growing movement to change that, but Harris County’s overcrowded juvenile detention center has made some lawmakers hesitate.
Last year nearly two-thirds of the Texas House of Representatives, including some of the state’s most conservative lawmakers, voted to place 17-year-olds in the juvenile justice system starting in 2021. But the idea went nowhere in the state Senate.
John Whitmire, a Democrat from Houston who is chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, opposed the legislation. He said the state needs to reform its juvenile justice system before making such a big change. He also cited Harris County’s overcrowded juvenile detention center: “Harris County cannot absorb 17-year-olds unless we have a plan.”
Brooks, the Harris County juvenile probation chief, is against the idea, too — for “fiscal reasons as well as philosophical reasons,” he said in an interview with the Tribune last year. In a separate interview, he also said his juvenile detention center already has many “sophisticated and streetwise” teenagers and that he can’t afford an influx of 17-year-olds from the adult jail.
Experts and advocates, along with Deitch, also think Harris County shouldn’t use its overcrowded detention center as an excuse to argue against change. They said the county should dig into its own data to figure out why there’s overcrowding, and how to fix it. Instead, to their dismay, the county is building a new detention center, which is expected to open in 2020 with hundreds more beds.
Brooks said Harris County has no other choice: The juvenile justice system is seeing more and more mentally ill kids who have nowhere else to get help.
Across Harris County, Brooks said, there’s a lack of beds for troubled youth — not just those who haven’t been convicted of a crime yet, but also “post-adjudication” juveniles whose cases have been finalized but need services like substance abuse rehab or mental health treatment — and it can take time to find them a place to get the help they need.
Whitmire said he believes, like Brooks, that “we’re dealing with a very tough group of kids and it’s driving up the numbers in Harris County. They appear to have larger numbers of violent, youthful offenders.”
Some advocates have compared the situation at Harris County’s juvenile detention center to what’s happening in its adult jail. The jail has been at the center of a lawsuit over keeping poor people behind bars for days or weeks simply because they can’t afford to bail themselves out.
There’s no bail in the juvenile justice system; instead, the probation department is the first to decide to detain kids, and judges regularly check in afterward. But research suggests that even just a few days in detention can increase kids’ chances of getting into more trouble later.
Brooks insisted that the department is following its scoring system whenever possible, but sometimes there are factors beyond anyone’s control. According to county data, the most common reason low-risk kids got locked up last year was that there were active warrants out for their arrest.
An active warrant may sound serious, but a lot of times all it means is that a kid missed a court date. And if those kids later get picked up by police, Harris County’s policy is to detain them, no matter what.
That’s what happened to Diane McCoy’s son. Facing misdemeanor charges for a fight at school, the now 14-year-old was picked up by police on his way home from basketball practice last year after he missed court. The fight had happened two years earlier, McCoy said, and she’d lost track of the court date.
The day after he ended up in juvenile detention, McCoy and her mother drove to the detention center downtown and begged a judge to release him. “It’s really my fault, I forgot about the court date,” McCoy told the judge as her son stood in the front of the courtroom in handcuffs and his grandmother sobbed. He was released.
Counties across the country lock up kids for this reason. “I can’t tell you how many times probation comes to me and they tell me, there was a kid who missed court last week because his mom couldn’t give him a ride,” Schneider said. “You don’t want to punish a child and subject them to being locked up if the problem is that their parents have zero transportation options.”
Some large counties have changed their tactics when it comes to warrants. In Cook County, Illinois — where Chicago is located — judges can issue an “alternative warrant” to kids who miss court, which doesn’t force police to lock them up. A similar system is in place in Seattle.
The Harris County juvenile probation department plays a big role in initially locking up kids. But once they’re in detention, judges have the power to keep them there. Kids must get a detention hearing before a judge within two business days of their arrest; after that, they get a similar hearing every 10 business days.
This system is supposed to protect kids from staying behind bars for too long, but advocates and lawyers say that some Harris County judges are rarely willing to release kids from detention, no matter the circumstances.
“If a kid has any type of gang affiliation, they stay in custody,” said Gene Wu, a Houston lawyer who is also a Democratic state representative. “Or if there’s any type of weapon involved, even if it’s a BB gun, they stay in custody. Well, that’s kind of stupid.”
“A lot of times, they’re just marching these kids out, telling them that they’re detained, and then they’re marching them back … there’s not a lot of concern for the kids’ well-being, nor is there concern for protecting the kids’ legal rights,” he said.
One thing is clear, though: Kids are spending a lot more time in the county’s juvenile detention center than they were a few years ago, and judges have the most influence on how long they stay.
These days, Harris County Associate Judge Aneeta Jamal presides over most detention hearings. She said she might decide to keep supposedly “low-risk” kids in detention because they have a criminal history or they’ve been accused of making threats at school — ”a misdemeanor, but it’s a very serious offense,” she said.
Brooks, the juvenile probation chief, also said kids may be staying longer because of delays on the prosecutor’s side. He said he’s working with the district attorney’s office to make improvements there.
*This article was curated from the Texas Tribune.