Texas Youth Commission begins to release more than 400 juvenile

As the Texas Youth Commission begins to release more than 400 juvenile
offenders, the highest concentration will return to Harris County a
statistic likely to raise eyebrows in a place that has been criticized
in the past for aggressive prosecution and incarceration of adult
criminals.

But officials within the local juvenile justice system say the
complaints aren't valid this time.

"It makes sense; we're the largest county, so we would have the largest
number of youth in TYC custody," said Harvey Hetzel, executive director
of Harris County Juvenile Probation.

Juvenile Judge Mike Schneider of 315th District Court said only about
3.6 percent of the youths who enter Harris County's juvenile justice
system are sent to TYC. Of the 15,922 juveniles who were adjudicated
last year, only 689 were sent to TYC.

"Our county has invested millions of dollars to provide alternatives"
to TYC incarceration, said Schneider, who noted that the overwhelming
majority of youths receive some form of probation, are sent to boot
camps or placed in residential facilities.

This week, TYC said 143 or 144 out of the 550 juveniles initially
identified for release are from Harris County. Bexar County had the
next highest number of juveniles to be released with 44. On Friday, TYC
said it would release more than 400 but fewer than 550 juveniles.

TYC spokesman Jim Hurley said that, as of Thursday, 1,053 of the
system's 4,600 juveniles were from Harris County. Dallas County had the
next highest number with 537.


A call for fairness

Will Harrell, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union
of Texas in Austin, said the numbers show that Harris County "values
convictions and hard time over justice."

Harris County frequently has more people in adult prisons than other
counties. It has also been criticized for disproportionately sending
more people to prison for minor drug possession cases than any other
county.

The vast majority of TYC sentences in Harris County are given after
juveniles have agreed to them in a form of a plea agreement called a
stipulation, added Schneider. Those stipulations are usually taken by
indigent juveniles advised by court-appointed lawyers.

Schneider added that Harris County was the first to hire an ombudsman
so juveniles could report abuse and complaints against the TYC.

By the time TYC becomes an option for some juveniles, they have likely
offended numerous times, Harris County District Attorney Chuck
Rosenthal said earlier this week.

"You just about have to break into TYC to get there. It's difficult to
get sent there," Rosenthal said.

The district attorney, who also said he thought the agency was
releasing too many juveniles too soon, drew criticism for his comments.
TYC officials countered that all youths being released had completed
their sentences. Because some had been held after their time had
expired, the agency was investigating whether sentences were extended
arbitrarily for minor infractions.

"The question is, 'What would he (Rosenthal) like to do for us with
these kids after they served their time?' " Hurley said. "Not a single
kid is being released early."

Hetzel said Harris County probation officers will not have to monitor
the 143 or 144 juveniles to be released to the Houston area. TYC
officers will be responsible for them.

About 3,000 juveniles were released from TYC in fiscal 2006, Hurley
said. Though many came from Harris County, Hetzel said they are usually
released "at a trickle amount each month."

Because Harris County's population is nearly twice as large as the next
largest, Dallas County, there is little surprise that more juveniles
from here are sent to TYC facilities.

The latest U.S. Census Bureau data recorded Harris County's population
at 3.9 million and Dallas County's at 2.3 million. Both counties send
roughly the same, very small fraction of a percentage of their
populations to TYC.


Rehabilitation

Still, the ACLU's Harrell thinks Rosenthal's recent comments show that
officials here are less concerned with rehabilitating juvenile
delinquents than punishing them.

"Rosenthal and other district attorneys have been raising the red
herring, saying all hell is about to break loose and that's just not
the case," he said. "We shouldn't be locking kids up for life."

The releases were ordered by Jay Kimbrough, the conservator appointed
by Gov. Rick Perry to begin rebuilding the agency in the wake of a sex
abuse scandal.