Houston Chronicle Examines Juvenile Waivers to Adult Court
While the unwise policy of trying and punishing juvenile offenders as if they were adults grew in popularity during the nation's "tough on crime" years, laws permitting waiver to adult court still require judges in most cases to make an individualized determination whether waiver is appropriate for a particular child charged with a particular crime. Texas law follows that pattern.
Before certifying a child, juvenile judges are supposed to hold a hearing and review evidence about the seriousness and nature of the offense, a child’s maturity and background, the likelihood of rehabilitation and the need for protection for the community, according to state law.
Those hearings are often time consuming and complex, as dueling experts (including social workers, psychologists, teachers and probation agents) provide the judge with the detailed information needed to make an informed waiver decision. Except in Harris County where, according to a Houston Chronicle investigation, judges routinely rubber-stamp waiver requests after holding 15 minute hearings. [more ...]
The deference that Harris County judges give to prosecution requests for waiver -- more than 90 percent of the requests are granted -- explains why 900 Harris County kids have been sent to adult court in the last ten years.
In 2007 and 2008 alone, Harris County juvenile judges transferred 160 teens’ cases to the adult system — more than nine of the largest urban counties in Texas combined, according to a Chronicle analysis of statewide certifications by county.
It's possible that teenagers in Harris County are more likely to commit serious offenses, or less likely to have the parental and community support that often convinces judges of a kid's potential for rehabilitation, than teenagers in the rest of the state. It's also possible, as University of Houston law professor Ellen Marrus suggests, that court-appointed lawyers in Harris County don't make a strong effort to resist the rubber-stamping. Those explanations don't explain why Harris County judges feel comfortable with cursory hearings and with preprinted waiver orders that parrot identical findings in nearly every case.
Attorney Christene Wood ... said that during [a family friend's] hearing last year the juvenile judge surfed the Internet, laughed and never once made eye contact with the boy. “The certification process here is an absolute joke,” Wood said.
A Houston Chronicle editorial urges the county's reform-minded district attorney, Pat Lykos, to add excessive reliance on juvenile waivers to the list of troubling prosecutorial practices she needs to address. The county's judges and defense lawyers should also understand that they need to start doing a better job.
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