Harris County accounts for half of all underage teens in the state's adult prisons, despite youths here accounting for just 15 percent of all juvenile crime in Texas, according to a review of state and local statistics.I attended a workshop yesterday at the Lubbock conference of the Juvenile Justice Association of Texas where defense attorney Mel Hazelwood described the certification process in some detail. Bottom line, he said, it is extremely easy for prosecutors to meet the requirements in Texas' statute to certify a youth as an adult for most serious crimes. If the prosecutor wants to do that, he said, they will usually succeed.
Judges and prosecutors expect the number of teens in prison will continue to increase. The recent sex and abuse scandals within the Texas Youth Commission prompted legislators to require offenders to be released at 19 rather than 21 or be sent to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
"The irony is that the Legislature's intent was to keep more kids out of institutions" by overhauling TYC, said Judge Michael Schneider of the 315th District Court. "It may cause more kids at younger ages to end up in the adult system."
Prosecutors may seek more adult certifications of juvenile sex offenders because of the lowered age cap on TYC stays.
"If a sex offender enters TYC at 16 or 17, that's only about two or three years," said Assistant District Attorney Bill Hawkins. "That's not enough time to rehabilitate them."
Texas permits courts to certify juveniles as young as 15 to be tried as adults for murder and other violent crimes.
For the past decade, Harris County has prosecuted more juveniles as adults than Bexar, Dallas, Tarrant and Travis counties combined.
The Chronicle story said as much: "'The process has become somewhat perfunctory,' said Marc D. Isenberg, a juvenile defense attorney."
So these are choices being made by elected officials, not legal requirements - youth committing the same offenses in other counties are more likely to go into the juvenile system. And it's not like the strategy is producing results: Juvenile crime is increasing in Harris County faster than the overall crime rate. My guess: A big part of the reason is the county's penchant for punishment over rehabilitation for criminal youth. The 16-year old brain doesn't work the same way as adult offenders, and it doesn't make the public safer to ignore those differences and miss an opportunity for reform. Kids can change, and a lot of them do.
Unlike teenagers, though, old dogs don't learn new tricks - at least the mean ones don't - and there's little reason to believe the Harris DA will reverse his misguided path. Rosenthal and quite a few of Harris County's most punitive judges are up on the 2008 ballot, and one hopes voters will help solve this problem.