As the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread through the Greater Houston area, criminal justice activists and lawyers with the Harris County Public Defender's Office are calling on county officials to find a way to safely release juveniles from the Juvenile Detention Center on Congress Street in Houston, where two juveniles and nine staff members have tested positive.

Participants in an online panel discussed the situation in an April 16 webinar hosted by Texas Organizing Project, a nonprofit that works with black and latino communities to fight for policy changes, including in criminal justice. Participants included Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo as well as representatives from the Public Defender's Office, Harris County District Attorney's Office and Houston Health Department.

There were a total of 115 juveniles in the system as of April 16, including 112 at the JDC and three at outside mental health facilities, according to Kendall Mayfield, director of legal services and public affairs for Harris County Juvenile Probation. Those numbers are down from March 13, when 176 juveniles were housed at the JDC and 13 in outside facilities, Mayfield said. All juveniles currently at the JDC are there pretrial. Those who were there post-adjudication were recently transferred to the Harris County Leadership Academy in Katy, officials said.

Since the positive test cases were confirmed, another 30 staff members have self-quarantined, Mayfield said. County officials have since enacted measures to prevent the spread of the virus, including enhanced cleaning procedures and screening anyone who enters, she said.

Twenty-one of the juveniles at the JDC are represented by the Public Defender's Office, said Steve Halpert, the office's juvenile division chief. Halpert said his office filed writs of habeas corpus on behalf of 17 juveniles earlier in April to have them released from the facility. The three juvenile courts have denied those writs, and Halpert said he is concerned about the safety of those juveniles.

"I think it’s going to get worse," he said during the panel discussion. "We are frankly sacred for our kids who are in there right now."

Seeking solutions

Hidalgo said the decision on whether a juvenile should be released ultimately falls to the county's juvenile judges, of which there are three.

"It's my understanding, it's my sense from the conversations I've had, that the judges are working through aggressively to really try to see how they can release them," she said.

Beyond that, Hidalgo said what she can do as county judge is limited. She said she believes she has the authority to issue an emergency order to temporarily release certain juveniles, but she warned that it could be counterproductive if it gets tied up in legal battles, which she said is what happened to a similar order she issued for adult inmates at the Harris County Jail at the end of March.

"The last thing we have is time, so we don’t want this to be dragged on even longer," Hidalgo said.

Halpert estimated that 30-40 of the juveniles at the facility are safe to release but do not have suitable guardians to look after them.

John Jordan, assistant district attorney and chief of the juvenile division in Harris County, agreed that around 30% of the juveniles at the JDC should be released, but the challenge is finding a place for them to go.

"Those kids don't need to be around the other kids who are a threat to our community," he said. "Those kids just because they do not have a place to go should not be next door in the same pod as someone who is charged with homicide or aggravated robbery. It's a disservice to those kids as well."

In conversations Halpert said he was having with people from Hidalgo's office, the possibility of using college dorms has come up. Because of the coronavirus, dorms are largely not being used, and they are well-suited for educational purposes, he said.

"Even if you say it’s going to be too difficult, there are other solutions like that," Halpert said. "We have to get out of the mindset that it’s either lockup or home."

Meagan Harding, a senior attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project who moderated the discussion, said several agencies have stepped up to offer services to juveniles who are released, including Revision, Center for Urban Transformation and My Brother's Keeper.

When it comes to taking the next steps, Halpert said stakeholders should have a roundtable discussion next week on goals and how to reach them, including how the county judge's office could push for change.

"We do, I think, have the community groups who are willing to help," he said. "It's just a matter of making things move. We have to decide 'this is what we want to do,' and we can make it happen."