April 15, 2020 - Members of the Juvenile Division in the Harris County Public Defender’s Office said current detention conditions are not appropriate for the confinement of youthful offenders amid the spread of the coronavirus.
Their remarks were made at the "Youth Advocacy in COVID-19" event on Tuesday presented by the University of Houston Law Center's Center for Children, Law & Policy via video conference on Zoom.
"It's really a horrific situation, and the Constitutional rights of young people are definitely being violated," said Ellen Marrus, director of the Center for Children, Law & Policy and Royce Till Professor of Law. "That means more pressure has to be applied to insure the physical and mental health safety of our youth and the community.
"As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to develop, the Center for Children, Law & Policy will continue to host more events like this and other CLEs during the summer to help defenders."
The Harris County Public Defender's Office has filed a writ in the Harris County Juvenile Courts to release their clients from detention, and if they are not released to ensure their Constitutional rights are being protected.
According to Steven Halpert, Juvenile Division Chief of the Harris County Public Defender Office said as of last count seven kids in the Harris County Juvenile Detention Center are symptomatic of COVID-19, with two testing positive. Seven detention officers have also tested positive for the coronavirus.
Assistant Public Defender Christopher Sailer shared his thoughts on the issue.
"What we're really trying to focus on going forward is presenting to judges that the JDC by its design and the facts of its operation is not capable of preventing the spread of the illness," Sailer said. "Any time you have a kid in JDC, they are at risk of contracting and spreading COVID-19. That's why we really want to get every kid possible out of JDC.
"When our society is essentially on a lockdown, it promotes public health and safety in many ways to get kids out and eliminate a potential hotspot of disease. The disease may circulate amongst kids, but staff members will also carry the disease out. It makes more sense to send kids home on electronic monitoring and confinement."
Halpert added that an ideal situation for a juvenile's release is to have solid supervision in place.
"Now that parents or guardians are generally at home in most of our cases, we do have at least one person that can supervise these kids 24 hours a day, which has often been lacking in the past," he said.
The opening speaker was Mary Ann Scali, executive director of the National Juvenile Defender Center. She detailed how the organization has been supporting the work of frontline juvenile defenders across the country in a number of different ways since the start of the COVID-19 response.
"We have been trying to support state-level responses, juvenile defense responses and community responses," Scali said. "Almost all of the efforts have really been focused on keeping young people out of the system, like halting low-level arrests. We're also really focused on the release of young people."
Scali also provided a landscape of what is happening nationally in terms of the work of juvenile defenders and other advocates for release.
"We have seen a lot of really creative strategies across the country, and some unlikely allies stepping in," she said. "We have polling data that was conducted by one of our partners showing that the majority of people do support the release of youth.
"Doctors organizations, mental health providers, and correctional institution leaders, detention facility leaders all really agreeing it's critically important we get young people out of facilities that cannot comply with CDC recommendations for safety and health right now."
The Center for Children, Law & Policy is one of several co-presenters of the Online Community Forum with Harris County Officials: COVID-19 and Juvenile Justice on Thursday. Click here for more information.