Beleaguered Harris County judge releases juvenile offenders after losing election, highlighting problems with the system
Following his loss to Democratic candidate Natalia Oakes, Harris County Family Judge Glenn Devlin immediately began releasing all of the juvenile offenders who had pending cases, according to the Texas Tribune. Devlin simply asked all of the defendants whether or not they planned to kill anybody, then released them from detention.
Under Texas state law, juveniles who are locked up while cases are pending are required to have a hearing every 10 days to determine whether or not they should remain in the custody of the state. Devlin had previously been under investigation along with two other family court judges who had been assigning an outsized number of juvenile court cases to a small number of private lawyers—the same lawyers who had given them large campaign contributions.
This arrangement earned those attorneys nearly half a million dollars, while the Harris County public defenders, which are funded by taxpayers, complained that they did not receive enough work from the three judges to keep their lawyers busy.
All three of the judges under investigation lost their re-election bids on Tuesday to Democratic challengers, and it appears that Devlin merely reset the dismissed cases for the day when Oakes takes office as one of Harris County’s family judges.
However, Devlin not only highlighted the questionable practice of assigning cases for kickbacks, but also raised questions about juvenile incarceration in general. According to the Texas Tribune, while the number of referrals to the Harris County juvenile detention center has been steadily dropping since 2010, the population of juveniles in the center has gone up, from around 160 per day in 2015 to over 300 per day in 2018.
Harris County officials are using this as a justification for building a bigger juvenile prison, expected to open in 2020 stocked with hundreds of more beds. The overcrowding of Harris County’s juvenile prison mirrors the overcrowding of Harris County’s adult jail, and there is an over-representation of Black children inside of its walls despite being labeled “low risk” by the state.
Members of the community are outraged at this arrangement, and that anger likely helped lead to the historic election where all 19 judges in Harris County were replaced by Black women. However, it remains to be seen if those judges, particularly the juvenile and family court judges, will actively fight against the system these children are being trapped in. As Ikeyraura Shorts told the Tribune after her 16-year-old son was sent to the juvenile jail after a school fight, “I just feel like they’re getting those kids ready to really go to jail… They’re just setting those babies up for the penitentiary.”