As many as 900 Harris County teens, some as young as 14 and most of them minorities from broken homes and mean streets, have been certified as dangerous enough to be charged and jailed as adults over the last decade, at times facing prison sentences as long as a life.
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.
The certifications are based on allegations they committed felonies, including robbery, murder, car theft and drug possession.
But such rulings are so common here — and so nearly identical — that they have prompted a legal attack from local attorneys and juvenile justice experts who call them “rubber-stamped” and “assembly line” injustices that violate children’s rights.
The result: “virtual destruction” of dozens of juveniles who are dumped and damaged in adult prisons and “could otherwise turn their lives around,” claims nonprofit Texas Appleseed, according to documents filed in the case. The nonprofit is part of a pending legal challenge of the 2008 certification of a Houston teen charged with murder.
Attorney Christene Wood, a family friend of that teen, said that during his 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.
That boy and at least seven others — including two girls — were certified on capital murder charges last year. All faced potential automatic sentences of life without parole, the toughest punishment Texas offers short of execution.
‘Worst of the worst’
One of the those charged with capital murder at 15, Robert T. Brown, pleaded guilty in May after admitting he had shot a man who hired his 17-year-old sister and him for a so-called sex party. The guilty plea came after Brown, described as mentally challenged and unable to read well, spent more than a year in Harris County jail, where he was badly beaten, family members said.
“I’m not condoning what they did — but I don’t think he got a fair shake. If our system is like this, where is justice?” said Bishop Samuel Daniels, the boy’s longtime minister. Brown’s sister also faces capital murder charges in the same case.
Bill Moore, an assistant district attorney assigned in 2009 to oversee juvenile prosecutions, said only the “worst of the worst” cases get recommended for certification. Some, however, have been certified for property crimes, like car theft, or drug charges, a review of recent cases and statistics showed .
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.
Historically, more than 90 percent of the DA’s recommendations for certifications were approved, county statistics indicate. The pace slowed somewhat in the first four months of 2009: 22 requests for certification; six declined.
The hearings tend to be quick — as short as 15 minutes — and based mostly on police statements and probation officers’ reports, according to a review of 2008 case files and interviews with attorneys.
Judges used fill-in-the-blank form rulings with very similar findings, the Chronicle found. In two cases, the forms were written so sloppily that girls certified as adults were referred to as “he.”
Few juvenile defense attorneys asked outside experts to evaluate their 14- to 17-year-old clients. In fact, some children get no formal psychiatric evaluation at all for potential mental health or disability issues before being transferred to adult court, according to records and interviews.
University of Houston law professor Ellen Marrus, an expert in juvenile law, said many court-appointed lawyers don’t “bother to work up the case and a lot of the orders are rubber-stamped.”
Life for a first offense?
A 16-year-old special education student currently faces a potential sentence of life without parole for capital murder, though some witnesses described the crime as an accident. The boy, who had no criminal history, attacked his older brother with a kitchen knife for threatening a stray cat. During the struggle in their crowded apartment, the boys’ 2-year-old nephew received a single, but fatal wound, court records show. The teen was certified as an adult, though psychiatric evaluations said he functions at a third- to fifth-grade level.
Another recent case involved a 15-year-old found with drugs at school. The boy, whose father is dead and mother abandoned him, has been raised by an ailing aunt.
“Harris County is not a good place to be if you are a child having some difficulties,” said Marrus. “It is known as tough on crime but it’s amazing how many people change their opinions when they see what happens to these kids.”