13 Investigates sharp rise in Harris County's juvenile violent crime rate as groups try intervention

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Thursday, May 2, 2024
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HARRIS COUNTY, Texas (KTRK) -- Harris County leaders are on alert over violence among minors, an occurrence they say would be sporadic in the past but has recently grown to monthly and even weekly.

New data that 13 Investigates obtained shows the county's juvenile homicide rate has spiked to 76% since 2021.

That's moved community and juvenile court leaders to look into drastic efforts before the rate worsens.

"If we don't help young people now, where is our society going to be in the next 10, 20, 30, 40 years?" Jonathan Zeigler, executive director of Young People In Action, asked.

Community advocates insist the numbers don't paint the entire picture.

Citing Harris County Juvenile Probation Department data, 13 Investigates found that the number of minors in juvenile facilities decreased by 13.2% in 2022.

Violent teen crime trends upward

Harris County juvenile crime rates are skyrocketing. However, groups say numbers don't tell the full story, and they are calling for tangible action.

For years, ABC13 covered the stories of families impacted by children committing crimes. Now, tangible data shows a rise in violent crimes being carried out by minors.

Harris County prosecutors said the rise in violent crime rates is highly concerning. They told ABC13 the surge they've seen is among murders, aggravated robberies, gun cases, and other cases.

"These things seem to be happening more often, and they seem to be more brazen," Allen Otto, the Harris County District Attorney's Office chief prosecutor, said.

According to Otto, violent juvenile cases used to be few and far between, but his office has seen them monthly or even weekly.

13 Investigates found a 25% increase in felony assaults by minors from 2022 to 2023. By the end of last year, juveniles reportedly carried out 489 felony assault cases. In 2024's first two months, 111 felony cases tied to juvenile suspects have been counted.

"They seem to just not care as much about the consequences of those actions," Otto said.

13 Investigates also found 21 juveniles committed homicides in Harris County in 2021. In 2022, 24 homicides by minors were counted. And last year, 37 homicides under the same category were recorded.

In the first two months of this year, seven homicides have been carried out by minors so far.

"You combine a dangerous weapon with a mind that doesn't necessarily respond appropriately, and bad things can happen," Otto said.

However, community advocates expressed skepticism about the overall story that the numbers told.

"If you look at just the headlines, you might think there's a tidal wave of juvenile crime, and that's just not the case," Charles Rotramel, CEO of Houston reVision, a group working with young people in the system, said.

The organization also tries to use early intervention for children to avoid legal trouble.

Despite his skepticism, Rotramel said he recognizes there's too much violent crime across the community.

13 Investigates found through Harris County Juvenile Probation Department data that the violent offenders, while increasing, represent a small percentage of crimes among minors.

Data shows that in 2023, more than 3,000 minors committed misdemeanors or nonviolent offenses out of the 6,047 minors in trouble.

Many of those minors will be sent to participate in one of the eight diversionary programs the county now provides.

As violence among minors increases across the streets of Harris County, experts like Zeigler say there are also avenues of hope.

Pouring into the youth

The chief prosecutor in the district attorney's office thinks minors aren't caring "about the consequences" of criminal acts these days. Despite this, advocates insist the numbers don't tell the entire story.

"Young people have the opportunity to change," Rotramel said.

His Houston reVision group, in the heart of Sharpstown, aims to impact the lives of younger generations through mentorship, opportunities, and resources so they don't commit or re-commit crimes.

Otto added the significant spike in the homicide rate among minors mirrors an overall violent crime increase among the age group, a state he considers "extremely concerning."

As for Rotramel, he said while the headlines may be captivating, he doesn't believe there's a tidal wave of juvenile crime overall.

"Do we want to vilify all teenagers or these young people, attach a label to them, and throw them away? No. That's not a helpful strategy," Rotramel said.

Given the Harris County Juvenile Probation Department data downturn expressed earlier, Otto said the district attorney's office has made strides since 2018.

"(We're) lowering the number of kids that are arrested, lowering the number of kids that are charged, lowering the number of kids that are detained for certain low-level nonviolent offenses," Otto said.

Data from the district attorney's office uncovers a dip in overall juvenile arrests between 2017 and 2023, from 8,000 to 5,300.

The juvenile system and community groups continue to string together ways to minimize the incarceration of minors and address problems at their core through mentorship.

"We call it the 'triple P': parents, pastors, and principals," Zeigler said.

According to Zeigler, the "P's" are the organization's pillars, focusing on mentoring children on Houston's north side.

He added that it takes a village to pour into the youth.

"We have to be involved in the community. It takes mentors to do that. It takes parents to do that. It takes pastors. It takes the whole community," Zeigler said.

As they work to provide resources to children who may not have things like a hot plate to eat at night or shoes, organizations like Young People in Action and Houston reVision work to cut habits and bad decisions as so many across our community, including their groups, work to create bridges for opportunities and solutions.

Both organization leaders said there's no ignoring the concerning increase in violence among minors.

"Are there some outliers? Absolutely. Do those outliers need to face some consequences? 100%. But overall, I think this generation of teenager is really pointing in the right direction," Rotramel said.

But they feel hopeful that despite the increase, the county has seen that there are ways to get to the root of this as a community by coming together.

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