After spending $2 million designing a new jail, new judge seeks to scrap contract to re-think juvenile system

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- Hundreds of Harris County children are inside of juvenile jails they say are in desperate need of repair.

Harris County records show $20 million in necessary fixes. Photos taken by the county show the conditions of some of the facilities in need of repair inside and out.

For years, Harris County has been planning a new 320-bed juvenile detention facility. It would have increased space to hold more offenders.

The county has spent $2 million designing it. At one point, construction was set to begin in late 2017, but it never started.

Tuesday morning, Harris County commissioners will consider cancelling the contract to design a new juvenile jail.

It could save millions in design costs and $75 million in construction.

The cancellation comes as some county leaders are looking at ways to avoid incarcerating more kids.

Since the start of 2019, the numbers of children admitted to the system have dropped. Statistics show newly-elected judges are keeping fewer children in custody, but hundreds are still in jail every night.

County records show on average that a Harris County juvenile is arrested every day for aggravated assault.

It happened 120 times from January to April of 2019 alone.

Outside the downtown Harris County Juvenile Justice Center where children are kept awaiting trial, parents and young people alike are unhappy with the conditions inside.

One mother told ABC 13 Eyewitness News, "No one wants their kid locked up."

She continued by saying, "The way they're treating these kids, (it's) like if they were in adult jails."

David, who was recently released from the downtown juvenile justice center said, "We need a bigger building."

He described not being able to see outside at all and having a cell window so damaged he couldn't see what was happening in the day room right outside of his door.

It also means staff would have a tough time seeing into his cell if something were going wrong.

The county has restored a hospital psychiatric care unit after it was closed due to budget issues.

Maintenance records show dozens of open maintenance items at the downtown Juvenile Justice Center.

Photos taken by county engineers of the Burnet Bayland Rehabilitation Center show broken doors, damaged locks, filthy air vents, and a paint brush holding a roof vent in place.

At Youth Village, a county juvenile facility in Seabrook, there are photos of missing ceiling sections, a rotting exterior wall and a missing bathroom wall eliminating any privacy for kids on the toilet.

13 Investigates Ted Oberg recently asked David if he thought a new facility was needed.

"From a rate of through one through 10," David answered, "like an eight."

When ABC 13 Eyewitness News covered juvenile jail overcrowding and quality issues two and a half years ago, county leaders then told us a new facility was on the way to solve some of these very issues. Two years later, Harris County has spent $2,190,724 on design for a facility Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo now says is not what the county needs.

"We have got to look holistically at how we improve the situation and that includes our facilities. We can't blindly build another one. If you build it, you will fill it," Hidalgo told 13 Investigates Monday afternoon. She explained she wants to avoid over-building juvenile jail beds when best practices suggest locking up fewer kids.

"We have to be very smart in what we're building. The juvenile justice system is incredibly broken," she says, "It's a disservice to our kids right now."

The contract Harris County commissioners will be asked to cancel was expected to cost $6.7 million just to design a new juvenile jail facility. After the $2.1 million spent on design, there are $4.7 million remaining.

If county commissioners agree to cancel the contract, the remaining dollars would be used immediately for repairs in the existing facilities. But it won't be enough to fix everything right away. County records show more than $20 million in needed juvenile system repairs at detention facilities.

The Juvenile Justice Center county records show $7.5 million in needed repair. At the county's Youth Village in Seabrook, records labelled as "Top Priority" show more than $7.3 million in repairs.

Three years ago, the Youth Village needed $5.5 million in repairs. The growth is a sign of the expense of waiting while a new facility was designed.

As he left with his mother, David told 13 Investigates, "I'm not to get ever locked up again because it's really bad in there."

It may be a good lesson, but may not be the way the county intended to deliver it.

Judge Lina Hidalgo says she is assembling a task force with experts from Columbia University and the Annie E Casey foundation to work with her and juvenile judges to study best practices in juvenile justice. She said she hopes to have a suggestion on a way forward by the end of the year, which is not expected to grow county detention.

"We're absolutely committed to changing the situation for kids in the system. It breaks my heart to read the statistics," Hilago says, "to hear about how some of these children have been treated or ended up there. We've learned that just tinkering at the margins would be a disservice to children into their families."

The county's Executive Director of Juvenile Probation declined two opportunities for an on-camera interview.

His office sent the following statement before 13 Investigates asked for one.

"The facilities currently operated by the Harris County Juvenile Probation Department are regularly inspected by staff and repaired by Facilities and Property Management to ensure that we are providing a safe and secure environment for our youth. The Texas Juvenile Justice Department inspects our facilities annually, and at this time we do not have any outstanding non-compliance issues as they relate to facility maintenance. Currently, we are working with our Juvenile Board to evaluate our juvenile justice system more broadly to determine how to better serve youth under our supervision. Part of this evaluation will include a discussion concerning the need for a new facility."

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