Keeping some kids out of juvie

HOUSTON Three months ago, Harris County quietly began a three year examination of the way juveniles are handled by the justice system here. The policies being examined involve these central questions:
  • Who are the kids who get put behind bars and why?
  • Is there a better way to rehabilitate them?
There are courts in the county's juvenile justice center, but more hidden is its other function -- a jail for defendants still minors under the law, but also accused of breaking the law. It's where a 15-year-old boy spent some of the longest hours of his life after he was arrested for credit card theft.

He recalled, "(There are) people here for armed robbery and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. It's like, 'Wow. I stole a hundred bucks through a credit card and I'm here.'"

His story can be multiplied by thousands. Non-violent crimes that generations ago might have been handled by parents and families now can land teens in the legal system, getting a whole new education. That's the concern even for those who prosecute juvenile defendants.

Bill Hawkins, Juvenile Chief in the district attorney's office, explained, "Basically, we as a community have two choices -- we can do things different or we can build more cells."

Different means alternative juvenile programs and the idea is getting traction. A nonprofit foundation is exploring the notion of involving churches in after-school care, as a way of redirecting kids either headed for trouble, or already in it.

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, "It's so important to give these kids a different path. I don't mean the ones who are already hardened criminals at the age of 14, and there are some, but the ones who've made a bad decision and gotten in the wrong crowd. We need to redirect them."

That's the distinction, identifying the juveniles on their first encounters with the law. It's also a huge challenge.

"We really don't have a choice, but the bigger and better answer is that if we don't do it, they're going to graduate and go across the street," warned Harvey Hetzel with the Harris County Juvenile Probation Program.

Under a revised risk assessment policy, juveniles who are not a danger to themselves or others, and not a flight risk, would be redirected to alternative programs. That means first time offenders such as the 15-year-old we met who's on now probation for credit card theft, would not have had to go to jail.

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