Harris County’s Troubled Juvenile Justice System

Political power

Despite the Senate race, the midterm week was a blue wave in local elections across the state of Texas as 59 seats were swept by Democrats. One of those seats belonged to Harris County Family Judge, Glenn Devlin who lost his re-election to the Democratic nominee, Natalia Oakes.

That following week upon returning to work in the 313th District Court, Judge Devlin released almost every defender he was scheduled to see that day resetting their cases to Jan. 4th. The day Oaks is scheduled to take the gavel. Under Texas law juveniles who are behind bars with pending cases are required to have a hearing every ten business days. The judge can then decide whether they should stay in detention or can safely be released under parental supervision.

Devlin simply asked the juveniles one question upon release — do you plan on killing anyone?

Many were left in shock as Judge Devlin is widely known for his high rates of incarceration.

An investigation launched earlier this year in August by The Houston Chronicle, found out that Devlin and Judge John Philips, juvenile court judge for the 314th district, accounted for more than one-fifth of all children sent to the state’s juvenile prison within the last year. They also report that the two jurists not only sent more kids to juvenile prison but also sent them at younger ages and for less-serious offenses compared to the county’s third juvenile court judge, which is presided by Judge Mike Schneider.

The high incarceration numbers were noticed in a judicial grievance that was filed earlier this year against one of the three jurists, causing experts from the State Commission on Judicial Conduct to question the data. All three juvenile court judges — and all Republicans — lost their positions to Democrats in the midterm elections by at least 10-point spreads just two weeks ago.

“The voters of Harris County clearly wanted a change in the juvenile courts and Judge Devlin today is showing us why the voters may have wanted change,” said Jay Jenkins, a policy attorney with the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition.

“We’re hoping now the juvenile courts can be a much fairer and more equitable place.”

Peak in incarceration among juveniles in Harris County

Over the past 15 years, the number of incarcerated juveniles in the U.S. has decreased immensely from around 76,000 to fewer than 36,000. Youths use to be sent to reformatories, training schools, and other large “prison-like” facilities. Instead, they are now being offered alternative sentences that are closer to homes, such as electronic monitoring, probation, and counseling.

So why is that among the three juvenile court judges in Harris County, it accounted for 25% of the number of kids sent to juvenile prisons while only making up about 15% of the state’s population.

Another alarming statistic from the investigation launched by The Chron showed that 101 of the juveniles sent to TJJD in 2014 were from Harris County — in 2017 that number jumped to 199 even though statewide figures had remained steady.

The Youth First Initiative, a campaign that works to end youth incarceration, reports that when juveniles are sent to these prison-like facilities they are exposed to the harsh elements that are seen in adult incarceration like solitary confinement, physical and sexual abuse, physical and chemical restraint and racial disparity which can stunt their ability to trust, engage, and learn.

“Research shows that what most teenagers need is a stable relationship with someone they can count on, and it’s absolutely impossible to establish that in a large, anonymous, coercive institution where there’s always violence going on,” said Marc Schindler, the former director of Washington, D.C’s juvenile justice agency.

Although the charges that are given for a crime are up to the prosecutors, sentencing lies in the hands of the judges.

Public defenders receiving fewer cases

Public defenders are also being affected in Harris County’s troubled juvenile system.

The public defender’s office handles everything from probation violations to serious felonies. They are usually overwhelmed with an overload of cases assigned to them but this has not been the case here. The highest workload in 2014 for a public defender in Harris County was 141 juvenile cases. Their allowed limit is 200 cases.

Private lawyers are being appointed by juvenile courts more often than a public defender. These courts are also seen appointing the same lawyers to dozens of courts cases in which the same judges are presiding over child custody disputes, protective orders, and decisions for kids in foster care.

A majority of juveniles in Harris County cannot afford to hire a lawyer so courts must appoint them one.

An analysis by The Texas Tribune shows that among the county’s three juvenile courts — that is led by Judges Glenn Devlin, John Phillips and Michael Schneider — there was a noticeable increase in the number of cases assigned to a specific private lawyer. This has caused allegations that there might be a “pay-to-play” system where lawyers contribute to the campaign of judges in exchange for appointments.

For example, The Texas Tribune reports that attorney Mark Castillo has donated to judges Schneider and Devlin a combined total of $7,250 since 2014. Castillo has earned nearly $300,000 for his work and has had 360 juvenile cases in these judge’s courts within the last year.

“Some of those attorneys took on 300-plus court appointments in a year and earned more than a half million dollars from juvenile and family cases,” writes The Texas Tribune, on an online brief after the Houston juvenile courts lost their elections.

“Meanwhile, the county’s taxpayer-funded public defender’s office says it hasn’t received enough juvenile cases from those same judges to keep its lawyers busy.”

Are kids being unrepresented?

The main focus comes down to the juveniles. Can a lawyer with a larger caseload do a good job for his or her clients?

House Bill 1318, passed by the 83rd Texas Legislature, instructed the Texas Indigent Defense Commission to “conduct and a publish a study for the purpose of determining guidelines for establishing a maximum allowable caseload for a criminal defense attorney.”

The study was titled The Need For Limiting Court-Appointed Caseloads in Harris County.

To briefly summarize the study by TIDC, over a 12 week period 196 lawyers across Texas, including private attorneys and public defenders, were asked to keep track of their time through a computer software program. These entries were categorized by task (investigation, legal research, court appearance etc.) and by the level of offense (First Degree Felony through Class B Misdemeanor).

The next part of the study was to send those results out to 319 attorneys to review. The attorneys were asked to change the entireties for each task based on how much time an attorney should work to assure that clients receive adequate representation.

Lastly, 18 criminal defense lawyers, all averaging 25 years of experience each were brought together in a panel. The panel took the results of the previous steps and individually submitted changes to assure enough time per task for effective representation.

This is what the study showed. It found that on average attorneys would be able to properly represent defendants based upon the following caseloads:

236 Class B Misdemeanors

216 Class A Misdemeanors

174 State Jail Felonies

144 Third Degree Felonies

105 Second Degree Felonies

77 First Degree Felonies

“Each category is independent of the others, an attorney can handle cases of different case levels, but the total may not proportionally exceed any single category,” states the TIDC website.

“For example, 50 Second Degree Felonies and 120 Class B Misdemeanors would not exceed the recommended total — 200 State felonies and 200 Class A Misdemeanors in one year would exceed the standards.”

The study makes clear that many of the private lawyers in Harris County are appointed to more cases than they can completely handle. The outcome? More juvenile defendants are being convicted, more are receiving custodial sentences/longer terms, and fewer cases are being dismissed — making our juvenile criminal justice system more costly, and less fair.

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