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A Nonviolent 15-year-old Will Spend Christmas in an Overcrowded Facility

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A part of Amelia Rondon almost did not want to attend her son’s detention hearing, held three days before Christmas. She had been told that her 15-year-old son Joshua, who had been charged with nonviolent misdemeanors, would probably be able to go home, especially because it was Christmastime.

But Amelia didn’t want to get her son’s hopes up — or even her own. Two weeks earlier, Judge Glenn Devlin had denied her son’s release, and she was afraid nothing would change.

It turns out she was correct.

Despite a recommendation from Joshua’s probation officer that he be released — and despite the fact that national best practices in the juvenile justice system are to keep nonviolent kids out of detention — Joshua will be spending Christmas and the first days of the new year cooped up in an overcrowded juvenile detention center. It has been so crowded, in fact, that Joshua told his mom he was sleeping in the hallway on a “stackable bunk” — essentially a plastic cot. Which, juvenile justice advocates say, makes detaining Joshua seem even more unreasonable.

“It’s hard leaving him,” Amelia said. “It’s hard when you see your child in handcuffs.”

Joshua, who is in eighth grade, was arrested December 8 in relation to a car break-in. He had been caught on surveillance video walking through an apartment complex alleyway with several other kids not long before the camera was broken and a car was ransacked, Amelia and Joshua’s step-dad, Louis Rondon, said.  It's often a shortcut that kids in their neighborhood, off Highway 6 just north of the Addicks Reservoir, take home from school, the couple says.

When the cops came with handcuffs, Joshua pleaded with Amelia and Louis through tears not to make him go to jail for something he didn't do — he had told them yes, he’d walked through the alleyway that day, but didn’t break the camera or into the car.

“I said, Josh, you have to go,” Amelia said, adding that she's always taught her kids that you can't run from consequences. “The cops told us we would probably be able to pick him up. We waited, but then the officer called us back, and said they wanted him to stay there — they were gonna keep him.”

He was on probation at the time of the arrest, after spending a month in juvenile detention in August for telling his brother in a text message that he would shoot him if he wore his shoes (more on that incident later). The Rondons say court staff informed them Thursday that Judge Devlin was keeping their son on the new misdemeanor charges because he violated probation and was not attending a DARE-like drug class. It puzzled the couple: Joshua's probation officer had said over the summer that it would be fine if he did not attend the class until the new year; after Louis’s truck was repossessed when he lost his job in the oil fields, getting Joshua to the class up in the Spring area would be too difficult. “So because a family falls on financial hardship, you’re gonna punish a child?” Amelia asked.

For decades, the juvenile justice system has been based on rehabilitation, not punishment — that way, kids are given the tools and services they need to propel themselves on a path to a better future. Jay Jenkins, an attorney and juvenile justice advocate with the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, said only the rarest set of circumstances should warrant keeping nonviolent juveniles in detention, especially if they have a loving family willing to take them home and get them to court. Probation violations, or picking up new misdemeanor charges, he said, are not legitimate reasons. Worse, he said, this is far from the first time he has heard from juvenile attorneys about judges, particularly Judge Devlin, keeping nonviolent juveniles for questionable reasons.

Judge Devlin’s court coordinator and the juvenile court administrator did not return multiple emails and phone calls seeking Devlin’s input.

As of December 15, the 250-capacity detention center was housing 282 kids; population had been as high as 319 during Joshua’s two-week stay. Michele Deitch, an attorney specializing in juvenile justice and a senior lecturer at the University of Texas School of Public Affairs, noted that discretion to release or detain kids is left exclusively to judges, since bail is not part of the juvenile system. Detention, she said, should be a last resort — especially when there is no room.

“Harris County has an incredibly overcrowded detention facility,” Deitch said. “But if they are using it for punitive detention reasons, then it's no wonder that they're overcrowded.”

* * * 

The problems started with Joshua about the time he entered middle school, his mom and step-dad said. His dyslexia had become more debilitating, and Joshua began having difficulty keeping up in class, sometimes skipping school altogether. He was held back a grade because of it, Amelia said.

The summer after seventh grade, just around the time he turned 15, Joshua had taken his step-dad’s gun to show it off to some friends in a wooded area and try it out. His parents aren’t sure if Joshua sold it to a friend or a friend stole it, but once Louis realized Joshua was the culprit, and once Joshua knew Louis had called the police, the teen left home. That’s when he texted his 12-year-old brother that he would shoot him if he wore his shoes while he was gone — a text that landed him in the detention center for one month, for the crime of terroristic threat, the Rondons said. Police had picked him up that night about two blocks from home, they said.

Since then, though, the couple said Joshua had been complying with probation. He had been going to school every day. He made the junior high football team and the coach had even let him try quarterback. And he passed his drug tests too. The only times he had missed his probation curfew, Amelia said, was when it was game night — football in the fall, basketball in the winter. His 12-year-old brother always went with him.

In fact, the morning after Joshua was arrested December 8, Amelia said that Joshua’s probation officer —who also declined to comment for juvenile privacy reasons — had recommended he be released from the detention center since he had been doing well in school and otherwise following all the rules of probation. Amelia said that, after talking to the probation officer, Judge Devlin’s juvenile probation court representative, Sophia Robinson, told the couple she also was ready to approve Joshua for release. But when she ran it by Devlin over the phone, Devlin apparently shot down the recommendation — without ever speaking to Amelia or Louis, the couple said.

“It's like he’s guilty until proven innocent,” Amelia said. “You’re taking these kids who, possibly, could be innocent, and you’re taking them out of their school, taking them out of their home, and you’re keeping them in a place that obviously is unsafe.”

Tom Brooks, executive director of the Harris County Juvenile Probation Department, said the detention center can certainly have greater risks for fights when it’s overcrowded, which is why staff may have to work overtime to maintain a 12 to 1 ratio with juveniles.

Further, this also affects education: Because the detention center does not have any classrooms, school is held in what could best be called a multi-purpose area — or the “day room,” as staff calls it. When the detention center is overcrowded, kids also sleep in this room on those plastic cots that Joshua described. (It’s less of a “hallway,” as he told his mom.) Brooks said that, while kids are living in this common area, it can get too crowded to bring all the kids into it for school, and therefore some just don’t get to go to school sometimes, he said. Over the past six weeks, Brooks reports an 84 percent average daily attendance rate.

“Because of the overcrowding, we have to first look at the safety concerns, and then bring them out for education,” he said.

Brooks attributed the overcrowding issue to an uptick in juvenile serious crime, not lack of discretion by judges in detaining or releasing kids. Indeed, felony crimes against persons increased from 611 to 779, or 27 percent, from 2014 to 2016. Yet, over a ten-year period, referrals for serious crimes have dramatically decreased, from 3,583 in 2006 to 1,882 in 2016 — or by nearly 50 percent (the stats are through November).

Even currently, violent or serious juvenile offenders only account for about half, or 139, of those detained in the detention center, as of December 12. It is not entirely clear who makes up the other half — the probation department only keeps constant stats on the serious offenders (we are still waiting on a records request for a full breakdown of the population).

Anecdotally, Brooks said many of the nonviolent kids who are held do not have a stable home to return to, have friction in the home with family, are undergoing extensive mental health evaluations, or have a history of failing to appear in court. As for probation violators, Brooks said that the courts have made a concerted effort since 2007 to stop detaining those juveniles. That’s when Harris County began taking part in the Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative, which seeks to connect kids with programs most suitable to their needs instead of keeping them in detention. “It was a systemic change for the good, to keep those kids who don't need to be in the detention center out of detention,” Brooks said.

Because Brooks is not allowed to discuss specific cases, it is unclear why Joshua did not fall under this umbrella.

* * * 

To fix the overcrowding at the detention center, Harris County appears to believe it has found a solution: building another one.

The design phase alone — approved this year by Harris County Commissioners Court — will cost $8 million. If county officials give those plans the green light, taxpayers will spend an untold millions more on construction of the facility, which would be built as an expansion to an existing juvenile facility on Chimney Rock.

And while it would certainly ease the burden on Brooks’s staff and cramped spaces, Jenkins and Deitch say the county needs to pump the brakes and take a closer look at its current facility. “Before there's any discussion about building a new facility,” Deitch said, “they need to be looking at how they’re using their current facility and whether everyone in detention needs to be in there.”

Based on the lack of concrete available records, it’s unclear for now how many kids like Joshua are detained, or how long, Jenkins said. And until officials can present a clearer picture, he doesn’t believe the county should spend a dime. In the meantime, he said, judges should make the most effective use of the extraordinary powers they’re given in the juvenile justice system to nearly single-handedly decide who goes home and who doesn’t, often by considering the teen’s needs and his or her risk assessment.

“In theory, the purpose of giving judges this extra authority and the power to really individually effect a case, it's not so that they can fill up the detention center until the county builds another one,” Jenkins said. “It's meant to be rehabilitative.”

Just two weeks in the detention center, Jenkins said, could have a serious effect on a teen’s life. Joshua’s parents say he fell in with the wrong group in the first place because of his impressionistic nature — and they fear that surrounding him with those charged with aggravated robberies (87 juveniles), aggravated assaults with deadly weapons (17) and capital murders (4) is the farthest thing from rehabilitation they could think of.

In the days leading up to Christmas, Amelia told the Houston Press that her family hasn’t been in the mood for the holidays. At an earlier visit with Joshua, he had asked his mom what she had been baking lately — any cookies yet? “Nobody’s really been into Christmas without Josh,” she said.

After Thursday’s hearing, Amelia had trouble holding back tears. She didn’t get to hug her son, or even talk to him, really. But just before he was taken away in cuffs, Amelia said Joshua turned to her and squeezed in just a few words.

"Merry Christmas, Mom."

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