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Fights Abound at the Overpopulated Harris County Juvenile Detention Center

The Harris County Juvenile Detention Center has kicked into "emergency staffing" mode given that the 250-capacity detention center was housing 295 kids as of September 22.

By the last week of September, the population had grown to 311.

According to an email obtained by the Houston Press through an open records request, fights were breaking out all over the detention center, and it appears that various programs had to be suspended because of the overcrowding — which juvenile justice advocates say is creating an unsafe environment for the kids as well as an unproductive one.

The email, sent to various staff members, reads: "As of today 9-22-16 we are in emergency staffing. The [Multiple-Occupancy Housing Units] will program and the 4th floor [sic]. There will not be a mini block schedule. It is simply unsafe with the current count of 295 and the current violent climate in detention. We have had group fights this entire week. We are in triple MOHU on nearly every floor."

Harris County Juvenile Probation Department public affairs representative Kendall Mayfield declined comment on behalf of administrators; Mayfield, other public affairs staff and other probation department staff were unable to clarify what emergency staffing mode means and what programs the "mini block schedule" consists of at press time. Public affairs officials also have yet to respond to a request for the most current population figure of the detention center.

Still, Texas Criminal Justice Coalition attorney Jay Jenkins, who focuses on juvenile justice reform in Harris County, said the detention center has a mess on its hands.

Jenkins said a main contributor to the overpopulation may be juvenile judges' reluctance to release juveniles to their families pending trial. In juvenile court, kids have detention hearings every ten days, in which a judge decides whether they should go home — sometimes under various supervisory conditions —  or remain locked up.

"The juvenile code is written to make it difficult to detain a juvenile prior to their case being disposed. But in Harris County, it really is a matter of the judges deciding that kids aren't going to be released," Jenkins said. "They don't seem to be taking into consideration a lot of the factors they are supposed to consider, which include the harm that could be done when continuing to detain a juvenile who is legally innocent."

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A source in the Harris County District Attorney's Office Juvenile Division, speaking on background, said at least two Harris County juvenile judges automatically decide to detain some juveniles based primarily on the type of offense, such as aggravated robbery. Those judges, he said, use a risk-assessment tool that makes juveniles accused of certain offenses, especially those involving weapons, ineligible for release. (September data on violent crimes committed by juveniles is not yet available online.)

Apparently, to handle the overcrowding problem, Harris County officials are considering expanding the juvenile facility on Chimney Rock. According to the Harris County Commissioners Court Mid-Year Review, design plans alone would cost $8 million.

Commissioners wrote in the review that this expansion may also help solve the problem involving housing 17-year-old offenders, who can't be housed with adults in the jail under federal law because they're considered vulnerable. (See all the problems that creates for the sheriff, who also runs an overcrowded jail, here.) Jenkins said unless the new facility would be specifically used to house 17-year-olds — especially if the state Legislature passes a bill raising the legal age of adulthood to 18 next session — then the millions of dollars it would cost to build is a waste of money. 

"The idea of building a whole new temporary detention facility is a $100 million solution to a $5 problem," Jenkins said. "If we can get the judges and the DAs to follow the law better on detention hearings, then we wouldn't need another detention center, and there would be plenty of room."

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