Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

February 3rd, 2018:

Saturday video break: Spanish Eyes

Elvis!

U2!

Sorry I’ve been remiss in posting these. Life, ya know? I’ll try to be better going forward.

The next frontier in criminal justice reform

We need to lock up fewer kids for bad reasons.

Hundreds of juveniles are jailed in Harris County often for weeks at a time for infractions as minor as failing drugs tests, violating curfews, running away or failing to attend school classes or rehabilitative programs, according to county records.

The records show a “pattern and practice” of detaining juveniles for technical violations that should instead be handled through the probation system, according to attorneys and juvenile justice advocates.

“You’re not complying with the terms of probation, but you’re not actually a risk to public safety,” said Elizabeth Henneke, an attorney with the Lone Star Justice Alliance, which advocates against incarcerating juvenile offenders.

“You never want to have a technical violation, especially for a kid, result in detention, because we know the negative effects,” she said. “Even a short amount of time can be problematic for kids, but long, protracted, weeks out of school, weeks out of your home environment – that can have really big consequences for them.”

Of the 1,055 juveniles cited for a probation violation in 2016, nearly 73 percent were detained, a proportion Henneke said is alarming, particularly in a county where the 250-capacity juvenile justice center has faced recurrent overcrowding problems for several years.

It is the largest percentage of juveniles ordered detained on probation violations since at least 2003, when 69 percent of 1,502 juveniles were detained, according to data from the Harris County Juvenile Probation Department.

The most recent 2017 data, which goes through Oct. 15, shows that 73 percent of juveniles continued to be jailed for probation violations – an average of 55 kids each day.

The average length of time spent behind bars on the violations ranged from nine days for leaving the county without permission to 30 days for violating special probationary terms, which can include specific judge-ordered requirements such as routine drug assessments or compliance with taking medication.

The Trib then went and wrote an even longer story on the same topic.

“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.

Harris County’s juvenile probation chief, Tom Brooks, said the detention center’s overcrowding is mostly due to “a high number of egregious offenders” — kids accused of crimes like armed robbery and assault — who often stay in detention longer.

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.

But data obtained by The Texas Tribune — along with interviews with experts, parents and advocates — suggest there’s more to the story. 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 data from Harris County’s juvenile probation department shows:

  • 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.

Experts say this is an unusual trend when it comes to juvenile justice. It’s becoming widely accepted that imprisoning kids — and even adults — for low-level crimes is probably doing more harm than good. Taking someone away from their home and school for a minor offense like shoplifting, and placing them alongside those accused of far more serious crimes, is bad for the child and for society, they say.

“Anytime you disrupt the kids’ routine, you take them out of the home, away from whatever stable influences they have … It’s not a good situation,” Deitch said. She added that the Harris County data suggests “there’s something very punitive going on.”

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.

“It really does seem like it’s a system thing and not a kid thing,” Holland said.

There’s a whole lot more, go read it. So just to review:

1) These kids were on probation, meaning they had committed lesser offenses to begin with.
2) They were put in jail for breaking a rule, not a law. Kids do break rules sometimes. It’s what kids do.
3) Putting kids in jail leads to all kinds of bad effects, from missed school to exposing them to real criminals to endangering their safety.
4) It costs money to detain and guard these kids, and detaining them does nothing to further the rehabilitative efforts that probation was supposed to foster.
5) Anyone want to bet that the kids who do get detained for probation violations will turn out to be disproportionately black and Latino?

Let’s do less of this, okay? And if you’re looking for a political solution, remember the names of Juvenile Court Judges Glenn Devlin and John Phillips, both Republicans and both on the ballot this year. Different judges will be our best shot at getting different results.

Special election coming in HD13

We have an opening act for November.

Rep. Leighton Schubert

State Rep. Leighton Schubert, who previously said he wouldn’t seek re-election this year, has decided to resign early to take a job at a local junior college.

The Caldwell Republican will step down Feb. 4 and go to work for Blinn College in Brenham, according to Richard Bray, a spokesman for Blinn. Bray said Schubert, who was first elected to the House in 2015, will work in the college’s legal affairs office, handling both legal and governmental matters.

Schubert confirmed the news in a release.

“Serving the people of District 13 over the past two terms has been a great honor,” he said. “As a fifth-generation resident of this district on both sides of my family, one of my main goals as state representative was to help make our area an even better place to live, work, and raise a family.”

[…]

Schubert surprised many when he announced late last year he would not run for another term, citing the need to focus on his family. Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, had already endorsed him for re-election.

Five Republicans and one Democrat had signed up to run to replace him in the 2018 election. Now, a special election will be called for sometime this spring to fill out the remainder of Schubert’s term. But that election will be entirely separate from the regularly planned March 6 primary.

I must have missed the announcement that he was not running again. Schubert won a special election to succeed former-Rep.-now-Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, who won a special election herself to earn the seat formerly held by now-Comptroller Glenn Hegar. I suppose there’s a certain poetry in him requiring a special election to fill out his term, though the stakes are much lower in this case because of the timing. The winner will just get to serve till the end of the year, so unless that person is also the November winner that’s all he or she will get. You can find the November hopefuls via the SOS filings page; filter on both parties and Washington County. I figure most if not all of the primary candidates will also run in the special, as a win in both races means a boost in seniority over all the other 2018 winners. I’ll check back after the election is called and the lineup is set.

Independent candidates’ day

Continuing with a theme, there are a lot of wannabe independent candidates for various offices, most of whom will never make it onto the ballot.

Dallas billionaire Ross Perot did it in 1992 and 1996. Satirist Kinky Friedman and Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn did it in 2006. They each got on the ballot as independent candidates in the November general election—Perot twice for president, and Friedman and Strayhorn as candidates for governor. None won, but they were on the ballot and votes for them got counted. This year, “Will Rap 4 Weed” and sixty-nine other people have given notice to the Texas Secretary of State that they intend to run as independent candidates for state and federal office this November.

But getting on the ballot as an independent in Texas is no easy task. A want-to-be candidate can’t just buy a spot; they’ve got to collect signatures on a ballot petition. For governor this year, valid signatures are required from a number of people equal to one percent of the total vote in the 2014 gubernatorial election—47,183 signatures from qualified voters. To make it even more difficult, the petition drives can only occur between the end of the major party primaries for the office the independent is seeking and a deadline of 5 p.m. on June 21. And the individual signing the petition cannot have voted in a primary or signed a petition for another candidate running for the same office.

“Texas is the only state that requires independent candidates to file a declaration of candidacy virtually an entire year before the general election,” said Richard Winger, editor of a national election-focused newsletter, Ballot Access News. Federal courts struck down similar laws in South Carolina in 1990 and in West Virginia in 2016, he said, adding that the U.S. Supreme Court in a 1983 decision noted that independent candidates with substantial support usually only emerge after the voting public know the names of the Democratic and Republican nominees. But Texas required independent candidates to file their intent to run for the 2018 election by December 11, 2017. “If the federal judges in Texas were of higher caliber, the Texas December deadline would have been struck down long ago,” Winger told me.

Nevertheless, the law remains intact along with its petition requirement.

The issue of Texas’ statutory requirements for getting on the ballot as an independent have come up before, most recently in 2016, but that ship appears to have sailed. Author RG Ratcliffe kindly put together this compendium of no-label hopefuls, and believe it or not there are a couple of names I recognize. Lori Bartley, running in CD18, was the Republican candidate in my Congressional district in 2016. There must be something enticing about that prospect here, because there are two other indies seeking a spot on the ballot alongside her. Scott Cubbler, running in CD02, was one of thirteen write-in candidates for President
anyone can be written in, but one must register with the SOS to have those votes be officially counted – in 2016. A grand total of 314 people did so. He was also a classmate of mine in college, and I guess I may have to satisfy my curiosity and ask him what he thinks he’s getting out of this experience. Anyway, the list of potential indies is there if for some reason you need it. None of them are official till they turn in their petitions, and please note that if you choose to sign one of their petitions you cannot vote in a primary, lest you render your signature void. Happy trails, y’all.

Endorsement watch: Family courts

After nearly a week off, the Chron gets back to endorsing.

Family District Judge, 246th Judicial District: Angela Graves-Harrington

Angela Graves-Harrington earns our nod in this primary contest against a qualified opponent, Charles Collins. These two candidates graduated from the Thurgood Marshall School of Law within two years of each other. Both have more than a decade of experience in family law. Both are running to compel change in a bench that they view as disrespectful. But while Graves-Harrington has represented different clients in custody disputes, divorce litigation, mediations and arbitration, Collins has had only one client for over a decade – the state of Texas. Collins has worked as assistant attorney general and then managing attorney for the state attorney general, child support division. Although he’s handled a high-volume legal practice and has managed a team, his practice lacks the breadth of Harrington’s. Collins displays the steady, even demeanor of a good judge and should run again. But voters should back Graves-Harrington, 41, in this race.

Family District Judge, 280th Judicial District: Beth Barron

Voters have a difficult decision in the race for this domestic violence court. Both candidates are well-qualified and have dedicated their careers to providing protection to persons who face family violence. In this near coin-toss race, our nod goes to Beth Barron, 58, who as an assistant district attorney for over 21 years, has represented more than 10,000 victims of family violence seeking protective orders against abusers. The South Texas College of Law Houston graduate has also published family violence guidelines that are utilized throughout the state for the Texas District and County Attorney Association to assist victims and their legal representatives. Opponent Barbara Stalder is board certified in family law and deeply engaged in this field as a practitioner, a victim, an expert, a teacher and through her work at various worthy non-profits. Stalder even earned our endorsement when she ran for this bench in 2014. However, Barron’s level-headed experience in the matter of protective orders, which are the bread and butter of this court, is extraordinary. Voters can’t go wrong.

Family District Judge, 309th Judicial District: Kathy Vossler

Kathy Vossler, 55, deserves the Democratic nomination for this bench. This experienced family law attorney is a people-person who has developed long-lasting relationships with families she has helped in almost 20 years of practice. The University of Houston Law Center graduate exhibits the appropriate demeanor for this bench and is running to ensure that litigants are treated respectfully. Vossler advanced some promising ideas to improve court efficiency and is also passionate about a mentorship program for young lawyers to train them to help litigants who struggle to handle their own divorces. Democrats should get behind this qualified candidate who has seen flaws in the system and promises to find remedies for them. Also running is Linda Marie Dunson, an attorney who has served on the Children at Risk law advisory board.

Do I have Q&As? Of course I do, from Collins, Vossler, and Dunson, with one from Stalder in the queue. There are a couple of Republican endorsements in there as well. Still a lot of courts to go, and we haven’t gotten to the non-judicial races yet, either. Early voting starts February 20.