Truth and consequences

2008
A Harris County program aims to educate juvenile offenders on the criminal justice system and to keep them from returning to it.

“How can I get my son to go to school?”

“Are Chinese throwing stars illegal weapons? What about butterfly knives and switchblades?”

“What can I do to discourage my child from befriending bad kids? He won’t listen when I tell him.”

These are just some of the questions people asked me at the latest Juvenile Consequences Partnership Program, which is aimed at informing young offenders and their families about the consequences of their involvement in the juvenile justice system. Other partnership members are the Houston Bar Association, Houston Police Department, and Harris County Juvenile Probation Department.

The history

After Harris County opened its new Juvenile Justice Center in 2007, the space and facilities were available for some new and effective programs to help juveniles with their rehabilitation efforts. At the same time, the Houston Bar Association wanted to begin a program to provide juveniles and their families education and skills to avoid further involvement in the legal system. The Bar Association and the Juvenile Probation Department got together with the Houston Police Department and the DA’s office, and the Juvenile Consequences Partnership was created.

Some of the ideas for the new program were borrowed from a now-defunct probation initiative called the Laws Program, which had a 75–80 percent success rate for the juveniles who had attended it. It should be noted that this old program had a different audience (juveniles who were adjudicated and on probation), but both the old Laws Program and the new one aim to educate juveniles and their families on the law and deter them from committing new crimes. (The Laws Program was discontinued because the old juvenile justice facility was cramped and in sorry disrepair. The hope was that once a new juvenile center was built, an improved program aimed at juvenile offenders could be founded, which is exactly what happened.)

Most of the children attending the new program are first-time misdemeanor offenders charged with possession of marijuana or small quantities of drugs, theft offenses such as stealing a bicycle or shoplifting, evading arrest, assault, criminal mischief, or burglary of a motor vehicle. The group also includes some first-time non-violent felony offenders. All of these juveniles have one thing in common: They are all in Deferred Prosecution, a diversion program offered through the Harris County Juvenile Courts. Juveniles and their parents voluntarily enter this rehabilitative program for not more than six months, and they are supervised by a probation officer. No guilty plea is required, and successful completion allows the juvenile to avoid being adjudicated delinquent in the juvenile court. A youth is placed into Deferred Prosecution by either a judge or by agreement of the prosecutor, and placement is limited to those with the potential to benefit from the experience and who have family support. Failure to complete the program or committing a subsequent offense returns the case to the juvenile court for adjudication and appropriate disposition.

After four or five months of planning, the very first presentation of the Juvenile Consequences Program was held in September 2007. It will continue once each month, always on a Tuesday evening, at the Harris County Juvenile Justice Center in the first floor courtroom, from 6:30 p.m. until 8:00 p.m. Partner agencies chose this time so people can eat dinner after work and school and travel to downtown Houston from all over the county.

Program officials get the word out by telling children and their parents during their first meeting with a supervising probation officer after a child is placed in the deferred prosecution program. If they can’t come to that month’s program, they can arrange to attend another program—the juvenile is on deferred prosecution for six months. About 75 to 80 families are invited to each session, resulting in attendance of about 120 people. The number invited to each presentation is limited because of the available space, but at any given time, about 1,300 children are on deferred prosecution in Harris County.

At the program, a representative from each of the partners talks for about 20 minutes regarding their respective role in the juvenile justice process. Although each speaker is provided a list of suggested topics, there is far more to discuss than the time allows. The program is presented in the same chronological order as a case would follow.  The police department representative speaks first about the role of the police officer in taking the juvenile into custody, probable cause for arrest, taking the child for magistrate’s warnings, processing him at a juvenile processing office, preparing the offense report, releasing the child to parents or placing him into the juvenile detention facility, and making the referral to the juvenile court. Some speakers have handouts to distribute, while others just stand up at the front of the room and talk. We don’t need microphones; we gather in a courtroom with good acoustics.

Following the police department speaker, a representative from the district attorney’s office discusses prosecutors’ role, protection of the public, how charges are filed, the difference between a felony and a misdemeanor, the law of parties, juvenile records, the State’s burden of proof, and the parents’ possible liability.

Naturally, after the assistant district attorney is finished speaking, it’s the defense attorney’s turn to talk about her role in the juvenile court, including the requirement that all juveniles must be represented by counsel, how the attorney evaluates the case and presents the evidence, the possible outcomes of a juvenile referral, the effect of a juvenile adjudication for delinquent conduct, and what happens if the juvenile wants to appeal his case.

Last, but certainly not least, a representative from the Juvenile Probation Department talks about how that agency fits into the juvenile justice system, what happens after the child has appeared in court, what to expect from the probation department during each step of the process, and what is expected of juveniles under PO supervision.

A recent program

At the program presented in October, I was the designated speaker from the district attorney’s office. I hadn’t spoken at this program before, but I had many times at the old Laws Program before it was discontinued. All of our office’s senior juvenile prosecutors—our division chief, two senior attorneys who are board-certified in juvenile law (I’m one of them), and three senior-level juvenile district court chiefs—share the presentation duties.

In thinking about how to approach my presentation, I decided to keep it short and simple and to make just a few points, rather than try to cover too much. I wanted to prevent future offenses as well as address the role of the DA’s office in my talk. Trying to keep it light, easily understandable, and a bit humorous, I told them that I was going to share some “secrets” with them, and if they would just follow my advice and tell their friends too, it would keep a lot of kids out of our juvenile courts.

I tried to tell a funny anecdote and use true stories from my own experience, and I urged them to follow my advice so they wouldn’t have to be coming back to juvenile court. In addition, I provided some written material on the juvenile system that I left at the table by the door, in case anyone wanted to take it and read it later. My anecdotes got some laughs, and the audience seemed engaged.

I offered four “secrets”:
If you aren’t supposed to have it at school, don’t take it to school. You are most likely going to get caught. Schools today all have police officers on campus, and if you get caught with something you shouldn’t have, the schools must, by law, refer those cases to the justice system.

When I went to school, there weren’t police on every campus, and there hadn’t been any school shootings like we hear about today. Today some of the schools have “zero tolerance” policies where they refer anything that looks like a risk to school safety to law enforcement. We all want our schools to be safe and for the children to be able to learn without distractions.

Don’t let your friends get you into trouble, and choose your friends carefully. If you hang out with troublemakers, people will think you are, too.

I told the audience about a case where a group of boys had driven across town for some reason; then one of them pulled out a gun and suggested that they “jack” a convenience store. All agreed, except one kid who was just adamant that he didn’t want any part of that. He berated the others and then just got out of the car and walked away—in a strange part of town in the middle of the night and without knowing how he might get home. When the others proceeded with their plans and the store clerk was shot and killed, this boy ended up having to testify against his friends. It was very hard for him, but today he is the one who has finished school, has a family, and lives a normal life. The others are still in prison. I told them how much I admired that boy’s courage in defying his friends and following his own conscience and how hard it must have been for him.

You are always under surveillance. Electronic surveillance is in stores, at school, on the school bus, in parking lots, and in shopping malls. If you see the camera, it’s because authorities mean for you to see it; often it is concealed.

I told the audience about a videotape I had seen of a shoplifting situation in a local department store, how the video could follow the kids from department to department, watch them from several angles, and zoom in to show what they had in their hands. The next weekend I found myself in that particular store, realized that it was the very place I had seen in the video, and I looked all around for the cameras—and I couldn’t see one of them! I looked and looked (and realized how silly I must’ve appeared to the security people—I guess they watched me pretty closely the rest of the time I was in the store) but still saw no sign of any cameras, which made me a believer in unseen surveillance.

Be polite and cooperate. This is always good advice. If you aren’t doing anything, you need not fear the police, so don’t run. I assured my audience that I had seen many, many cases where kids were skipping class but not doing anything illegal, and when police approached, they panicked and ran away. Those kids might have been in trouble for truancy, but they would not have been charged with breaking the law if they hadn’t run.

I also told them that police could stop them and ask their name, and they were obligated to identify themselves. I told a story about another prosecutor who had had a flat tire on the way home late at night and who had gotten all dirty and dropped the jack on his foot while trying to change to tire. He had dozed off while sitting on the curb waiting for his girlfriend to pick him up, and the police came along. He was really grubby and had a bleeding foot, and he awoke to the police car’s red emergency light flashing in his face. They asked him who he was and what he was doing. They asked to see his driver’s license, and he started to get mad (his bad night was getting worse) and say, “But I wasn’t driving!” when he realized the cops had no idea who he was and that he had to cooperate and explain himself. When he did, the officers understood and they helped him change the tire.

The program seemed to be a great success with most of those who attended. For the most part, they seemed to be paying attention and afterwards, several of them took the time to approach me and the other speakers with good questions. Parents mostly asked how to get their kids to do what they should be doing and keep them out of trouble. The juveniles, on the other hand, seemed to have questions along the lines of “What would happen if …,” asking about the consequences of various circumstances and behaviors.

We hope to provide an opportunity for kids and parents to meet and interact with representatives of the various parts of the process. They meet a real person who tells them how the system works, and they have an opportunity to ask questions about what they have experienced so far and what might happen in the future. We hope to educate families so they can provide the support and guidance their child needs, and we want to point out to the kids the consequences they face in the justice system if they make bad choices and continue on the wrong track. We want to help them successfully complete their program and to deter them from committing subsequent offenses.

I tell them I hope I never see them again in the courthouse—unless someday when they have finished their education and they come back to help us as a juror, police officer, lawyer, probation officer, or maybe even a judge!