Tarrant County juvenile judges blamed for rarely working keep their jobs, for now

·4 min read
Paul Moseley / Fort Worth Star-Telegram

The head of Tarrant County’s 323rd District Court, which oversees juvenile criminal cases, spoke publicly for the first time in his defense after an audit found his two associate judges rarely holding hearings and the vast majority of youths held in detention are Black or Hispanic.

Judge Alex Kim told members of the Juvenile Board on Wednesday that that he runs the most efficient court in Tarrant County and that race is never a factor in his decisions to detain juveniles.

The Juvenile Board, made up of judges, formally reviewed the audit’s findings during its meeting Wednesday, a day after county commissioners had strong words about the problems uncovered.

County commissioners had requested the audit because the juvenile detention center has been overcrowded for months. The audit’s findings show that while the numbers of cases have declined over the years, more youths are being detained and for longer periods before trial. The two associate judges who handle juvenile cases cancel or postpone so many of their scheduled hearings that one is called “ghost” court privately among employees.

Glen Whitley, the leader of the county commissioners, has called for “defunding” the two associate judges. On Wednesday, the Juvenile Board members pressed Whitley on why he wanted them to decide so quickly to do away with the two judges. Whitley said said that the county must submit its budget by Sept. 13, and the commissioners need to know whether to include the salaries.

“I’m not convinced how much those associate judges are working,” Whitley said.

The commissioners on Tuesday agreed to hire the auditor for more in-depth review of the system. The new audit likely won’t be finished by Sept. 13. No decisions were made Wednesday by the Juvenile Board.

Kim, who is elected, oversees the juvenile detention center and the two associate judges, Cynthia Terry and Andy Porter, who are appointed. Porter is running for election to the Criminal District Court No. 4 bench. Terry is running to be the 325th District Court judge and is unopposed.

The audit found that one associate court had 744 hearings on the docket but canceled or delayed 61% of them. The other judge failed to hold 67% of the hearings on the docket. The audit didn’t include the judges’ names.

In comments Tuesday, Whitley implied that hearings were put off earlier this year because of campaigning. “There were no hearings from February to March except for detention,” Whitley said, which “just happened” to be during the early voting period.

“That is very disturbing to me,” Whitley said. “We have a job to do and they ought to be doing the job. We all run for office, but I don’t think that’s interfered with us doing our jobs. I’m not pleased with continuing those associate courts.”

Kim responded Wednesday that the COVID omicron strain forced judges to close their courts early in the year.

Not true, said Bennie Medlin, the director of the county’s Juvenile Services. Medlin said that the system handled COVID well, and there was never an outbreak in the center.

“There was no situation that would have disrupted court,” Medlin said. “We have managed COVID in a way that it didn’t disrupt court.”

Data provided to the Star-Telegram from a source with knowledge of the juvenile justice system shows Kim has held 10 trials since he took office in 2019 — six in 2021, and four in 2022.

Medlin said Wednesday that Kim doesn’t always fulfill recommendations by probation officers to place juveniles in programs outside of the criminal justice system. Kim has ultimate authority on what happens with a youth’s case. Medlin couldn’t say why Kim doesn’t always follow recommendations.

Kim said that the detention center has become a holding place for victims of sex trafficking, a comment that was met with ire from several Juvenile Board judges. Kim said that has contributed to the crowding.

“You telling me that you’re holding victims of sex trafficking in the same population with criminals?” asked Judge Pat Gallagher of the 96th District Court.

Kim said pods in the girl’s section are single cells, and juvenile services often tries to place them into programs that can protect them. Medlin confirmed that some have been referred to Unbound North Texas, a nonprofit that supports victims of trafficking.

The audit found that a vast majority of juveniles in detention this summer were Black or Hispanic. Judge Wayne Salvant, of the Criminal District Court No. 2, grilled Kim about the issue.

Salvant said that it didn’t sit right with him when he saw those numbers.

“I agree,” Kim said.

Kim argued that the majority of youth who are detained on gun or violent crimes are Black. He said he’s holding them because they’re a danger to the community or themselves, not because of their race.

“I don’t like it,” Kim said. “But it’s not something I’m doing, it’s the facts.”