Damning audit of Tarrant juvenile detention crowding blames ‘ghost’ judges, DA office

·8 min read

An audit into why Tarrant County’s juvenile detention center is so overcrowded has uncovered wide-ranging problems at nearly every level, including violations of Texas law in how some youths are housed and judges who hold hearings so rarely they’re called “ghost” courts by employees.

The Fort Worth Star-Telegram obtained a copy of the 21-page audit by Carey Cockerell, who served as Tarrant County’s director of juvenile services for 20 years before serving as a state commissioner in Texas and Kentucky. Cockerell’s findings spread blame across multiple agencies, including the District Attorney’s Office and the Sheriff’s Office.

One youth waiting for trial had been sitting in juvenile detention for nearly a year as of this summer, the audit found; multiple others have been held for more than 215 days. Nearly three dozen youths were wrongly put into the adult jail, with no separation from the general population. And at least one judge held only one-third of the hundreds of hearings that were on his or her docket; the others were canceled or delayed.

The issue of overcrowding at the juvenile detention center has been a problem for months, with youths reportedly sleeping on cots in common areas such as the library. The center has a capacity to hold 120 and peaked at 138. It’s staffed for 104 juveniles.

The Star-Telegram has reported on recent efforts by the Tarrant County Juvenile Board to combat overcrowding, including the formation of a triage committee. If the detention center’s population rises above 104 youths during the week, the committee meets to give suggestions to Juvenile Judge Alex Kim, who is the only authority who can implement changes in the courtroom. It’s unclear if that group has had to meet yet this summer.

By May, the overcrowding problem had gotten the attention of the Tarrant County Commissioners Court, which hired Cockerell “to look more closely at the situation and potential remedies.”

Cockerell’s audit apparently was completed Wednesday and is expected to be formally presented next week to county leaders. The Star-Telegram obtained it through a public records request.

The audit details how the number of juvenile cases sent to the 323rd District Court has decreased steadily since 2000, yet the number of juveniles held in detention has skyrocketed because youths are being held longer.

Total juvenile cases in 2000 was 7,792. That number had fallen to 3,682 cases by 2019, and fell further to 2,534 cases in 2021. The report acknowledges that 2020 was a statistical outlier due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The detention center is currently housing 25 juveniles who are awaiting transfer to a Texas Juvenile Justice Department facility. However, Texas’ juvenile detention system has stopped accepting more youths because of issues with being short staffed, the Texas Tribune has reported.

Though juvenile caseloads have steadily decreased over two decades, overcrowding has been a recent problem. Cockerell’s audit found the answer isn’t one issue.

Juveniles sent to adult jail

The audit found that 35 juveniles who were 17 years old were at one point held at the Tarrant County Jail because of the behavior they displayed while in the juvenile detention center.

Two of the juveniles had mental health issues and two were Child Protective Services cases. All 35 were placed in the general population with no separation from adults.

Cockerell said this was against the Texas Family Code state statutes.

“This practice is very troubling and potentially increases Tarrant County’s liability,” he wrote.

The practice stopped after an opinion was issued by the District Attorney’s Office in September 2021.

The Star-Telegram asked the Sheriff’s Office why officials there accepted the teenagers and why they were placed with adult inmates. A spokesperson said in an email, “I will have to refer you to the juvenile judges that gave the order for any 17-year-olds to be housed in the Tarrant County Jail or the Tarrant County District Attorney’s Office.”

Kim declined to be interviewed for this story.

The head of Texas Appleseed, an advocacy group that works to better systemic issues in the juvenile justice system, said it’s concerning to hear that youth were sent to the Tarrant County Jail for housing and were not separated from adults.

“There’s a reason that the juvenile system exists,” said Brett Merfish, director of youth justice at Texas Appleseed, “because we recognize that kids aren’t adults and we need to treat them differently. They are more susceptible to trauma, and we also know that when young people are exposed to the adult system, it makes them 34% more likely to recidivate.”

The audit said that youth were not separated by sight or sound from imprisoned adults, which is a state regulation for anyone under 18 being housed at an adult facility.

Merfish said it’s also a liability for the county that the mixing happened.

Three-day rule

When a juvenile in Texas is taken into custody for a suspected crime, district attorneys are required by law to file juvenile charges within 30 days for felonies or 15 days for misdemeanors. Since the 1970s, however, Tarrant County’s district attorneys had aimed to file charges within three days.

In 2019, for reasons that are unclear, the District Attorney’s office went back to using the maximum 15- and 30-day deadlines to file charges, the audit says. The result has been an average daily population in juvenile detention jumping from 58 youths in 2017, to 118 youths in 2022, despite the overall number of cases decreasing.

No one should have been surprised by that, Cockerell’s audit suggests. In 2003, the Juvenile Board — a group of judges across Tarrant County — studied what would happen if the county eliminated the three-day rule. The study predicted significant increases in detention population and the length of incarceration. The 2003 data specifically predicted that the average daily population would increase to 127.

The Star-Telegram asked the District Attorney’s office why it changed its policy to take longer to file charges in juvenile cases. It responded in a written statement: “We follow the law. Judge Kim can release a juvenile at any time, including three days, right now and has been able to since he took office in 2019.”

The statement said the district attorney does not believe that abandoning the three-day rule has contributed to overcrowding. The three-day rule “is a judge’s decision, not a DA practice.”

The audit recommends that the Juvenile Board consider decreasing the length of time the district attorney has to file a case.

‘Ghost’ court

Cockerell’s review of dockets found that cases are not processed in an efficient manner.

He specifically reviewed cases that happened on June 27 and found that 116 juveniles were being held in the detention center. Of those, 25 cases were awaiting review by the DA’s office. Another 25 juveniles had already been in the detention center for more than 100 days with no disposition.

One juvenile had been in detention for 515 days. He or she will be tried as an adult and was awaiting transfer.

Another juvenile had been held for 336 days and was pending a pretrial hearing.

Multiple other youths had been in the center for more than 215 days.

Cockerell also noted that 107 of the youth being held were people of color, and nine were white.

The audit blamed the county’s associate judges for not hearing enough cases.

One associate court had 744 hearings set, but 61% were passed, canceled or reset. Another court had 431 cases set, but 67% of those had been passed, canceled or reset. Staff members at the detention center referred to that judge as a “ghost” court because it is so seldom in session.

The judges were not named in the report.

Detention was never meant to hold youth for upwards of 6 months, Merfish said.

“Detention is designed to be a short term confinement,” she said. “It’s concerning that the length of time young people are seeing in detention is increasing because we know a lot of times kids who stay longer in the system are put more at risk.”

Using behavioral ratings for detention

Juveniles are commonly held in the detention center solely based on ratings of their behavior, which are assigned by detention staff.

This issue was recently discussed at a Juvenile Board meeting. Members voiced concern for this practice and said that behavior metrics were put in place only as a way to incentivize teens to behave, not to decide whether they should be released from detention.

Cockerell suggested stopping that method because it “highly impacts detention” lengths and the average daily population.

The county should use community-based programs that are already in place to reduce detentions, the audit says, and give attention to the fact that a large percentage of juveniles being held are youths of color.