Advocates, lawyers call on Harris County to release portion of youth in juvenile detention

Panelists from Harris County, the public defender's office and the district attorney's office discussed the situation at the county's Juvenile Detention Center during an April 16 webinar. (Screenshot courtesy Zoom)
Panelists from Harris County, the public defender's office and the district attorney's office discussed the situation at the county's Juvenile Detention Center during an April 16 webinar. (Screenshot courtesy Zoom)

Panelists from Harris County, the public defender's office and the district attorney's office discussed the situation at the county's Juvenile Detention Center during an April 16 webinar. (Screenshot courtesy Zoom)

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."
By Shawn Arrajj
Shawn Arrajj serves as the editor of the Cy-Fair edition of Community Impact Newspaper where he covers the Cy-Fair and Jersey Village communities. He mainly writes about development, transportation and issues in Harris County.


MOST RECENT

The U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds perform demonstrations across the country. (Courtesy Tech. Sgt. Manuel J. Martinez/U.S. Air Force)
Jersey Village native named next commander of the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds

Lt. Col. Justin Elliott, a Jersey Village native, will be the squadron’s commander and lead pilot next year.

Imperio Wine & Spirits sells a variety of liquor, beer, wine and spirits. (Courtesy Adobe Stock)
Imperio Wine & Spirits opens in Katy; Montgomery Chick-fil-A to open dining room and more Houston-area news

Read the latest business and community news from the Greater Houston area.

In addition to constructing a new 43-acre campus, Harris County Emergency Services District No. 11 will be buying a fleet of 40 new ambulances and hiring 150 new staff. (Courtesy Cypress Creek EMS)
Executive director gives preview of ESD 11 Mobile Health Services

In addition to constructing a new 43-acre campus, Harris County Emergency Services District No. 11 will be buying a fleet of 40 new ambulances and hiring 150 new staff.

See how some Greater Houston area school districts are planning to go back to school for the 2021-22 academic year. (Courtesy Adobe Stock)
See how some Greater Houston area school districts are planning to go back to school for the 2021-22 academic year

While some school districts in the Greater Houston area are doing away with face mask requirements and virtual schooling completely, others are pivoting to continue offering online learning options for students and plan to require face masks.

masks
CDC ends all mask requirements for fully vaccinated people

The guidance states fully vaccinated people do not need to wear masks indoors or outdoors.

The inaugural cohort of Cy-Fair ISD's College Academy will also graduate from Cypress Lakes High School on May 29. (Courtesy Lone Star College-CyFair)
85 Cypress Lakes High School students to graduate with associate degrees

Since its launch, CFISD’s College Academy has expanded to all 12 high schools districtwide. Those who complete the program are able to enter the workforce with their two-year college degree or transfer to a four-year university as a junior.

Houston Scanning digitizes video tapes, printed photographs, film reels and more. (Courtesy Houston Scanning)
Houston Scanning relocates from Willowbrook to Louetta Road in Cypress

Houston Scanning digitizes video tapes, printed photographs, film reels and more.

The new clinic offers affordable services for local families. (Courtesy Adobe Stock)
Walk-In Wellness Family Clinic to bring low-cost medical services to Cypress

The clinic will offer pediatric care, preventative screenings, physical exams, diagnostic testing, dental services and more.

Single-family home sales were up 47.4% compared to last April with 9,105 units sold versus 6,175 a year earlier. (Courtesy Houston Association of Realtors)
HAR: Houston-area home sales in April up 47% compared to last year

Single-family home sales were up 47.4% compared to April 2020.

House Bill 1024, signed into law May 12, allows restaurants and bars to permanently sell alcoholic beverages to-go. (Courtesy Pexels)
Cocktails to-go are here to stay in Texas: Gov. Greg Abbott signs change into law May 12

Supporters say the change will help restaurants continue to recover from the economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

Jersey Village City Hall is located on Lakeview Drive, but city officials have plans to break ground on a new facility in Village Center in the coming months. (Danica Lloyd/Community Impact Newspaper)
Jersey Village postpones commitment to new City Hall construction contract

Council members agreed it would be best to wait to enter the agreement until other businesses have committed to building in Village Center.