Two Harris County Texas judges accounted for more than one-fifth of all children sent to the state’s juvenile prisons in 2017. Unsurprisingly, the overwhelming majority of the children were black or Latinx.
The two courts — overseen by Judges Glenn Devlin and John Phillips — not only sent more teens to juvenile prison, but they also sent them younger and for less-serious offenses than the county’s third juvenile court, where Judge Mike Schneider presides. And, from all three courts, the kids sent to state lockups were almost all — about 96 percent — children of color.
Last year, Harris County made up about 15 percent of the state’s population but, among the three courts, accounted for 25 percent of kids sent to juvenile prisons.
The cat was let out of the bag after a grievance was filed against Judge Phillips by Chief Public Defender Alex Bunin earlier this year.
Bunin alleged racial sentencing disparities, a tendency to refuse plea deals, and statements showing bias, all culminating in a “willful violation of the Code of Judicial Conduct,” reports the Chronicle.
“Between April 2017 and February 2018, Judge Phillips sentenced a higher percentage of juveniles to TJJD than either of the other two juvenile district judges, and as much as both combined,” the complaint notes. “The majority of these cases involved African-American and Hispanic males.”
“This is the way they’ve chosen to exercise their discretion,” said Bunin. “I don’t think there’s anything we can impose on them to change that.”
The Chronicle reports that since 2014, the number of kids the county sends to youth prisons has doubled, a shift some attribute to an increase in violent crimes such as aggravated robberies. Others point to judicial authority, which has been used to send them to unsafe and costly state-run juvenile prisons.
“Locking kids up does not necessarily make them do better and sometimes as research has shown, it actually makes them worse,” state Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston, a lawyer who practices in juvenile courts told the Chronicle. “Because then you’re putting them in custody with much worse kids.”
The Chronicle reports that one of the major findings from the Counsel of State Governments’ 2015 Closer to Home report was that kids locked up in state-run facilities are 21 percent more likely to be arrested again than their peers who stay under some type of supervision closer to home.
“Rather than sending youth away to state lockups, judges should rely on their local juvenile probation department’s secure facilities for their highest-risk youth,” said Lauren Rose, youth justice policy director with Texans Care for Children.
“To ensure the county facilities have adequate space and youth are matched up with the right services, lower-risk youth who do not need to be confined should be kept out of lockups and, instead, get the supports they need in the community,” Rose adds.
“Since 2007, when we sent almost 5,000 kids to the state, we’re now under 1,000,” Sen. Whitmire said. “Everyone’s got it statewide, in large and small communities — except our two judges.”
Although there has been no evidence that these Texas judges are doing what two Philadelphia judges did in the kids-for-cash scandal of 2009, their heavy-handed implicit bias is damaging just the same.
The good news is that these judges are up for re-election in November.
Harris County, you know what to do.