For Their Own Good

Harris County juveniles certified as adults are jailed in isolation 23 hours a day — without being convicted of a crime.

George awakes scared and confused. He's had the dream again, the one where he is living back at home, where he can wander into the kitchen at any hour to down a glass of milk or fix himself a bowl of his favorite cereal.

He'd had dreams like this before, and every time he wakes up, it takes him only an instant to realize the lie. All he needs to do is feel the jailhouse mattress underneath his body and open his eyes to see the light shining in the corner of his cell, the light that taunts him 24 hours a day and that he can never snuff out.

For the past six months, George has been living alone in a small cell on the second floor of the Harris County jail awaiting trial on charges of aggravated robbery with a deadly weapon. Prosecutors say he was one of a group of boys who robbed and assaulted a married couple at gunpoint.

George (not his real name) has been held in isolation 23 hours a day even though he has not been convicted of a crime.

He is 15 years old.

He desperately misses his mom.

In most cases, teens ages 14 to 16 would be held before trial in the county's juvenile facility, but George has been certified to stand trial as an adult, which means he is housed across the street at the "Big Jail."

Authorities say that to keep George and other juveniles like him safe from older, hardened criminals in the general population, George should spend his days in near solitary confinement.

But this decision to protect juveniles may actually make life much worse for them, critics say.

Liz Ryan, Director of Youth Justice, an advocacy group in Washington, D.C., says data shows that juveniles are 36 times more likely to commit suicide in an adult jail than a juvenile detention facility and 19 times more likely to kill themselves in isolation than in general population.

George is one of 83 teens certified as adults in Harris County in 2008. For the past 12 years, an average of 89 juveniles have been certified here every year, the majority charged with violent and heinous crimes with expensive bonds that their families cannot pay. They have not been convicted of anything, yet their treatment — the isolation — is akin to the severe, short-term punishment of adult prisoners who have already been condemned. And there they sit, for months, even years, before ever going to trial.

In some cases, there never is a trial.

Take Bobby, for instance, who would only be interviewed under the condition of anonymity. He was arrested when he was 16 and charged with aggravated robbery. He spent about five months in the juvenile detention center before being certified as an adult and moved to the county jail. After more than a year, the prosecutor dropped the case, and he was set free.

He describes his time in isolation as mental agony.

"It made me want to act crazy," he says, "but I knew I wasn't a crazy person. I know that in their eyes we're adults and criminals, but at the same time, we're very young and we haven't been convicted. We're just sitting there. You get crazy thoughts, like you want to hurt somebody or hurt yourself."

The pretrial confinement of these teens is not the only aspect of certification that's drawing fire. Critics also say the entire process is nothing more than a rubber stamp. And they object to the rules that say an appeal of the certification itself is only allowed after the criminal trial is over.

From 1999 through 2008, Harris County juvenile judges certified 745 youths. In that same time, they only denied 48 certifications, meaning they transferred more than 93 percent of the cases to adult court. In 2005 and 2004, judges did not deny a single one. According to the Austin-based advocacy group Texas Appleseed, Harris County certified more juveniles from 2006 to 2008 than the next five largest counties in Texas.

The treatment of these kids has slipped under the radar. Even the judges who certify them as adults and many county officials seem unaware that this legal determination sends the teens to isolation.

In Texas, any teen 14 or older charged with a violent felony or aggravated drug offense can be certified to stand trial as an adult. There is, however, nothing in the Texas Family Code requiring that a certified juvenile must be kept in the county jail while waiting to go to trial.

It's just something that's done in Harris County. It's convenient.

"It's an awful thing, solitary," once wrote Senator John McCain, who spent more than two years in isolation as a P.O.W. in Vietnam. "It crushes your spirit and weakens your resistance more effectively than any other form of mistreatment."

Once a child is certified, says Ellen Marrus of the University of Houston Law Center, "we follow the adult court proceeding, which means being placed in juvenile detention is not an option. But there's nothing in the statutes that says we have to do that. The child could still remain in the juvenile facility where they could get the specialized treatment and education they need."

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