May-June 2018

Specialty courts for juvenile offenders

Sarah Bruchmiller

Assistant District Attorney in Williamson County

Hans Nielsen

Assistant District Attorney in Harris County (retired)

As the treatment of juveniles in the criminal justice system shifts from a methodical and uniform practice toward an individualized, tailored approach, we have seen an exciting new option emerge: specialty courts for juvenile offenders. While some would characterize these courts as a current “trend” of the legal system, we prefer to think of them as an impactful new option destined to play a sustaining role in juvenile law. This change in mindset could alter the path of generations of juvenile offenders whose futures would otherwise take a much different, possibly even deadly, course.
    In this article, we discuss how specialty courts are redirecting the focus of the juvenile system to address the genesis of youths’ behavior while also holding them responsible for criminal activity. These programs acknowledge the reason the youth got to this point—recognizing the root—then redirect and educate the child to achieve real behavior modification. It’s a tall order, but what better place than Texas to achieve such a monumental task?

Across Texas
Throughout the state, specialty courts are popping up in both small and large jurisdictions.1 In Harris County, there are now four such courts specifically for youth struggling with drugs, human trafficking, mental health, and gang membership. (More on each one soon.)
    Do not assume that only a large county with vast resources can launch a specialty court for juvenile offenders. It can work in any county where parties are willing. (Read the story from Guadalupe County on page 25 for a view into how a juvenile drug court works in a smaller jurisdiction.) Funds from state grants and nonprofit donations can help launch such a court. One great starting point is the Office of the Governor’s website,2 which lists specialty court programs, allows people to register a court, and connects visitors with other programs throughout the state. Funding opportunities are also on the site.
    It does not require a large group of juveniles to run a specialty docket—in fact, participants in specialty courts should be few so the services are not diluted and the programs remain manageable for the team members (judge, defense counsel, prosecutor, etc.). That’s because running such a court takes more time and oversight than a conventional docket, and prosecutors should know from the outset that they are both high-investment and high-reward endeavors. Juvenile offenders are provided a myriad of resources to address and correct the conduct that brought them to the attention of the juvenile justice system.
    All of the Harris County specialty courts are directed at high-risk youth who may not normally be successful on regular community supervision and who need closer, personalized oversight. Recidivism for the specialty courts ranges from 14 to 25 percent, depending on the court (more specifics on those numbers below), which is considerably lower than for all juvenile offenders in the system, which is 33 percent across the board.3 Tom Hough, administrator in the Harris County Juvenile Probation Department’s (HCJPD) Office of Public Affairs, stresses that youth in the specialty courts benefit greatly from the custom-tailored approach that specialty courts provide. “If you can take the kids who are most in need and get them personalized help,” he says, “you can do some good work.”4
    Harris County courts use a multidisciplinary team (MDT) consisting of a judge, defense counsel, prosecutor, psychologist, probation officer, parent partner (more on this in a moment), Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) representative, education specialist, and possibly others, depending on the juvenile’s needs. A prosecutor’s role will vary per court, but for each program, we are involved from the beginning. The prosecutor determines whether an offender is the right candidate for the court, participates in staff meetings on each juvenile, and gives input on how to handle a youth who violates program rules.
    One unusual aspect that plays an important role in the specialty court is the direct contact between the youth and the judge during monthly review hearings. When the juvenile comes in for his status hearing with the team, he interacts directly with the judge presiding over the court, and the hearings are conducted not at the bench but rather in a more informal setting with all team members, including the judge, seated around counsel table. The hearings are non-adversarial in nature, with the shared goal being the child’s successful completion of the program.
    Resources for specialty court participants are vast and are intended to have far-reaching effects. In addition to conditions that include substance abuse evaluation and treatment and individual counseling—all of which may be provided routinely as needed in a typical juvenile probation—the child receives an education specialist to assist him with any needs. Many high-risk juveniles have fallen way behind in school, and having the assistance of someone to get them back on the right track with their education provides more academic prospects than if they had not joined the program. Specialty courts also extend further into the juveniles’ lives by working with their parents and family. The court can provide a “parent partner” who connects the family with parenting classes, transportation, housing assistance, and even financial help. Additionally, several specialty courts work with businesses or non-profits to provide employment for juvenile participants to help them learn job skills, earn money, and gain work experience. This opportunity redirects how the children spend their time (in productive pursuits rather than criminal activity).
    Now we’ll go into some details about each specialty court.

Drug court
Prosecutors who’d like to wade into a specialty court for juveniles might start with a drug court. There are grant resources to assist with funding and various existing drug courts in both juvenile and adult systems for guidance in launching and running one. (Indeed, Guadalupe County’s one specialty court for juveniles is a drug court.)
    Harris County’s version is called SOAR, which stands for Sobriety Over Addiction and Relapse. Like adult drug courts, it is an intensive program aimed at helping juveniles overcome substance abuse, which is common among youthful offenders. More specifically, it accomplishes this feat by focusing on addressing maladaptive family patterns and dynamics. This specialty court goes beyond providing drug treatment and requires intensive supervision with random drug testing once or twice a week. It also recognizes and rewards the juvenile each step of the way toward sobriety.
     Entry into the program often starts with probation officers looking in detention centers for youth with drug addiction issues. They need not have committed drug crimes to be eligible, though any violent criminal history is an automatic disqualifier. It is a post-adjudication program created under the auspices of the drug court programs authorized under Texas Government Code Chapter 123.
    The process of identifying eligible youth includes a clinical assessment aimed at determining the needs and risks of each youth. Once candidates are identified and admitted, juveniles and their families begin to engage with the agreed-upon treatment plan. There, the drug court utilizes a cognitive behavioral approach for addiction treatment. The goal is to change patterns of thinking and behavior resulting in a change in the way the juvenile feels. Avoiding people and places that trigger thoughts of using drugs or alcohol is one tool in the therapy toolbox, as is finding methods to reduce the ways that substance abuse is reinforced and identifying methods of positively reinforcing sobriety. In addition, dealing with an addict’s thoughts and feelings when faced with situations that can lead to relapse is also an important part of the therapy, as one cannot always avoid the triggers that lead to drug use.
    The SOAR drug court uses multi-systemic therapy (or MST) for drug court participants and their families. MST is an intense, family- and community-based treatment that helps the whole family deal with the juvenile’s drug use and behavior. Therapists come into the home for several hours to observe and then make recommendations to improve parenting skills and enrich family relationships. Intensive follow-up with several weeks of in-home sessions renders this treatment extremely effective. An extra benefit is that the youth often has better grades and exhibits improved behavior at school after completing the program. MST has been adopted by the juvenile probation department as an effective treatment method and is used exclusively by the department for family therapy needs. Other specialty courts also utilize this impactful method.
     Harris County Juvenile Judge Mike Schneider of the 315th District Court oversees the drug court in Harris County, and his graduation ceremonies include the graduate tearing up a copy of the juvenile judgment as a symbolic gesture of completing the program and sealing the adjudication. Per the HCJPD’s 2016 Annual Report, 75 percent of SOAR participants successfully completed the program.5 Statistics from the probation department show that re-adjudication for a greater offense (recidivism) for drug court is about 14 percent (two youth out of 14 participants were re-adjudicated for a greater offense within a year of their supervision end date in 2015, the most recent year for which statistics are available).6

Mental health court
Another specialty court is the mental health court, which addresses a juvenile’s diagnosed mental health issues that result in behavioral problems. In the criminal justice system, there are numerous instances where the symptoms (bad behavior) are addressed through punishment, but the genesis of that behavior is never examined or contemplated. The mental health court takes another approach.
    This court differs from the others in that juveniles participate pre-adjudication while their cases remain pending. Successful completion earns the juvenile the ultimate legal benefit of having the pending juvenile case dismissed and his record sealed. The 2016 HCJPD Annual Report notes that 78 percent of participants successfully completed the program.7
    As we know, mental illness frequently runs through generations of a family. The youth may be presenting behaviors indicative of a mental illness that bring him to the attention of the criminal system, only to have the team learn that not only does the child suffer from mental illness, but so does a parent. That parent may have never been diagnosed before. As with all of the juvenile specialty courts, the team members form a partnership between the team and the parent to connect the family with various agencies and resources to improve the juvenile’s home life and ultimately his future. In situations where the team has learned that a parent or guardian also suffers from mental illness, the team provides medical assistance and resources to them as well. Many times, juveniles aided by this program have never received mental-health treatment and are not cognizant of their condition and the means of addressing it. Once a youth acknowledges, accepts, and addresses his illness, his behavior may be vastly altered via behavioral therapy, counseling, and mental health treatment. This is yet another way a specialty court is changing the lives of its juvenile participants.
    Statistics from the probation department show that re-adjudication (recidivism) for mental health court is about 7 percent—two participants out of 29 were re-adjudicated on a greater offense within a year after their supervision end date in 2015, the most recent year for which statistics are available.8

Human trafficking court
Known as CARE Court, which stands for Creating Advocacy, Recovery, and Empowerment, this specialty court works with youth engaged in or at risk of sex trafficking. At any given time, this court works with 15–25 participants to provide a tailor-made approach to each youth.  
    Many envision “human trafficking” as occurring only in larger communities like Houston or Dallas, but it is a sad reality that sexual exploitation of children happens anywhere and everywhere. The CARE Court works with juveniles who are adjudicated on various offenses (often theft, failure to identify, or drugs) but have also been victims of sexual abuse, and such a program can be implemented in any county, large or small, with youths who have been prostitutes or who have endured sexual abuse at home. Identifying a victim of human trafficking or sexual exploitation can be a difficult endeavor, as it is not a topic that juveniles easily disclose. Sarah recalls a girl who had previous criminal cases but had not disclosed her history of sexual exploitation. It was only through careful observation and her defense counsel’s in-depth questioning that she was identified as an ideal candidate for this specialty court.
    Potential candidates are considered to participate pre- and post-adjudication, and the court team reviews each to see if the program is a good fit. Reasons for denial into the program include severe cognitive impairment, significant and active gang involvement, and being current recruiters for trafficking. As a whole, juveniles who are admitted into the program have layers of issues including sexual abuse, drug addiction, and mental illness, to name a few. The goal of CARE Court is to help them rebuild their lives physically and emotionally. Sadly, not all youths with a history of trafficking are ready to participate in this program. The court requires that all participants have the desire to stop this behavior and are ready to accept help to better their lives.
    Many of them start the program in a residential placement facility designed specifically for victims of trauma. A common characteristic of these juveniles is the propensity to run away from home or from the treatment facility and live on the streets. CARE Court recognizes this inclination and places restrictions to combat that tendency. Rather than punishing the youth for this proclivity, the program tries to prevent and address it before it happens. Youth have been placed in different treatment centers, including the Mingus Mountain Academy in Arizona, a highly structured residential treatment center, as well as at Freedom Place in Houston, a comprehensive care facility for victims of sex trafficking. Private placement allows the youths to disconnect from their current environments and work on their own recovery to change their mindsets and ultimately change their futures. In Harris County, the CARE Court is funded entirely by the Juvenile Probation Department.9
    Sarah recalls one girl who frequently ran away from home and from unsecured juvenile facilities. Her probation officer and the team were very concerned that they would lose her back to the streets. Eventually, she was brought back into custody and sent to a secured rehabilitative facility that specialized in sexual trauma. Removing her from her environment—from her bad connections and social media—and allowing her to focus on healing provided clarity and inspired her desire to change. She ultimately emerged from the facility with a new, healthier, positive future. She faced her issues, worked on herself, and even was able to help others who had experienced the life she had been living. Had she not received the attention, guidance, and resources from CARE Court, we hate to imagine where she would be now.
    This girl is just one of many examples of lives transformed by the program. According to the Harris County Juvenile Probation Department 2016 Annual Report, 11 youth participated in CARE Court in 2016, with a successful completion rate of 69 percent.10 Once someone graduates from court, the child’s criminal record is eligible for sealing at no cost to the family.11 Statistics from the probation department show that the re-adjudication rate (recidivism) for human-trafficking court is about 18 percent—two participants out of 11 reoffended in 2015, the most recent year for which statistics are available.12
    When Sarah was with the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, she was the juvenile prosecutor assigned to CARE Court. By far, it was one of the most rewarding experiences she ever had as a prosecutor. Seeing the dedication and tireless drive of the team to help these juveniles was inspiring. Even though participants would experience setbacks, the team never lost faith in them or the program. The impact they made on the lives of those children was immeasurable. To see a girl join the program at her lowest point, filled with memories of trauma and feelings of worthlessness, and then later witness her graduate from the court with not only a new outlook and tools to make better life decisions but also an awareness of her own self-worth, was incredibly fulfilling.

Gang court
The final specialty court for juveniles in Harris County is gang court, also known as the Youth Empowerment Services and Supervision (YESS) program. Its goal is to reduce the juvenile’s gang participation by redirecting his energy to healthier alternatives. Candidates participate in the court post-adjudication and must submit to a formal gang evaluation to determine if they realize that they need to make changes and are willing to fully participate in the program, as well as undergo a psychological evaluation.
    A key consideration when evaluating a candidate for this program is whether he is committed to changing his lifestyle. Willingness and buy-in from the individual is a must for him to be successful. All these programs require much more from the juvenile than what is required in a regular probation, so it is definitely not an easy path. The attention and additional resources (treatment, classes, etc.) involve a higher level of commitment from the child and in many cases, from his family too.
    Similar to the other specialty courts, a heavy rehabilitation component is key to the gang program. Once a youth is accepted, an outreach worker assists him with school, finding employment, and locating pro-social activities, such as sports or other hobbies, to direct his attention and time to pursuits safer than gang life. Also similar is that the program works through a multidisciplinary team to support the gang member with making positive changes in his life. The team can even provide access to resources for tattoo removal if the youth so requests. While the program is intense and closely monitored, the HCJPD reported in its 2016 Annual Report an 80-percent successful completion rate for gang court participants.13 Statistics from the probation department show that re-referral (recidivism) for gang court is about 25 percent—two participants out of eight reoffended in 2015, the most recent year for which statistics are available.14

As the methodology of the juvenile justice system continues to evolve with the recognition that one-size punishment does not fit all juvenile offenders, specialty courts play a vital role in handling juvenile cases and addressing the needs of society’s youth in crisis. If we want to facilitate change in today’s juveniles, we must look at the genesis of their criminal behavior. Working to redirect their focus, provide resources for treatment, and educate and aid their families to support and guide them changes the individual and ultimately our communities for the better. We must remain cognizant of the goals of the juvenile system: protection of the public and treatment, training, and rehabilitation of the child.15



3  According to information from the Harris County Juvenile Probation Department (on file with the editor).

4  From an interview with the editor. Major thanks to Tom Hough, Flor Munoz, and Desirae T. Gonzalez with the HCJPD for their help in compiling statistics for this article.

5  HCJPD Annual Report, 2016, p. 14 (available at

6  According to information from the Harris County Juvenile Probation Department (on file with the editor).

7  HCJPD Annual Report, 2016, p. 14.

8  According to information from the Harris County Juvenile Probation Department (on file with the editor).


10  HCJPD Annual Report, 2016, p. 14.

11  Tex. Fam. Code §54.0326.   

12  According to information from the Harris County Juvenile Probation Department (on file with the editor).

13  HCJPD Annual Report, p. 14.

14  According to information from the Harris County Juvenile Probation Department (on file with the editor).

15  Tex. Fam. Code §51.01(1)–(2).