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FORT WORTH — On a recent Wednesday, 10 boys and girls wearing olive drab jumpsuits sat in a jury box waiting to learn if they would have to remain in a Texas county’s juvenile jail.
Detention is meant to be a last resort for children accused of criminal behavior. Over the last 15 years, the state has tried to keep as few youths locked up as possible, instead focusing on drug treatment, family counseling and other support services to help kids get and stay out of trouble.
But in Tarrant County, incarceration is becoming more the norm. Although juvenile arrests have dropped sharply in recent years, children accused of crimes are being held longer in the increasingly overcrowded detention center. More than half of the kids detained last year were Black, while less than one-fifth of the county is.
In 2019 and 2021, the county sentenced more children to the state youth prison system than any other.
This summer, the state’s youth prison director said counties should only send kids to the crumbling prison system after they have “exhausted all available resources for intervention and are left with no option.” In Tarrant County, at least a quarter of kids were sent to prison for nonviolent crimes, like unauthorized use of a vehicle or theft, either when they are first found guilty or after violating probation conditions, county data shows.
The shift toward increased incarceration has in large part been pinned on the juvenile courts, led since 2019 by a longtime conservative politician turned scandal-plagued judge.
State District Judge Alex Kim has been featured prominently in the local newspaper for his popular livestreamed court hearings in which he has publicly identified children and required at least one 12-year-old to name his drug and weapons suppliers. (Kim pointed The Texas Tribune to state law which requires children placed on probation for gun offenses to report how they got the gun, but the law states children must give that information to their probation officer within 30 days, not in a public hearing.)
Kim was also accused of racism after telling a Black teen’s mother it was predictable her son would get caught in a stolen car with a gun if he is rapping, as opposed to singing in a church choir. The judge countered that he never mentioned the teen’s race, according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
The high percentage of Black children in the county’s juvenile jail reflects the teens being arrested for gun offenses, Kim said, and he blames the overall rise in detention and prison sentences on a startling increase in teen gang violence in the county.
The judge said he doesn’t “play around” and isn’t typically inclined to give repeat chances if a child violates their probation.
“I’m not the guy who says, ‘Quit doing that, or I will tell you to quit doing that again,’” he said, seated in a courtroom pew before the recent hearing.
Significantly more children have been accused of homicide in the county in recent years, jumping from four in 2019 to 18 last year, according to county reports. But an independent analysis of the Tarrant County juvenile justice system this summer reported that the increase wasn’t enough to account for the growing rate of kids being kept in jail.
Instead, the analysis, conducted by Carey Cockerell, the former head of both Tarrant County Juvenile Services and the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, found new policies and practices used by prosecutors and judges are driving the increase.
One new policy Cockerell cited gives the district attorney more time to keep children in jail while deciding whether to prosecute them. Kim said the vast majority of commitments to TJJD were based on plea agreements between the district attorney and defense attorneys. The Tarrant County Criminal District Attorney’s Office did not respond to questions for this story.
Cockerell also knocked Kim and his two associate judges for not holding court often enough, leaving kids to languish in the juvenile jail, and for using children’s behavior in detention as a reason to extend their time in lockup. Misbehavior in jail is not one of the reasons Texas law allows for keeping a kid incarcerated, Cockerell noted.
“It seems that the juvenile justice system in Tarrant County is seen as a ‘mini-adult’ system that has lost many of the tenets that should be inherent in juvenile and civil proceedings,” Cockerell said in the August report.
“Everything in the juvenile justice system says that detention should be short term, temporary and that cases should be moved forward expeditiously,” he told county commissioners days later.
Kim countered that canceled hearings aren’t unusual, adding that “in any criminal or quasi-criminal case, the vast majority of settings are reset.”
During the recent detention hearing, Kim called up each of the 10 teenagers and weighed whether to continue jailing or release them while their criminal cases were pending. In his trademark bow tie, perched on his bench below giant steel letters spelling “In God We Trust,” Kim read the police reports describing each child’s alleged crime and looked over their behavioral reports from detention over the previous 10 days.
He probed the children and their parents for information on their behavior and home life. His brazen demeanor on the bench gained him a loyal YouTube following, but it also draws harsh criticisms from juvenile justice advocates and employees. A former probation officer and private attorneys said Kim often bullies or instigates children and their parents, with the lawyers claiming it was a way to get more views.
“Like an actual reality show, Kim often treats the litigants — especially parents of the children — with contempt,” attorneys Greg Westfall and Stephanie Patten wrote in an April complaint to the State Commission on Judicial Conduct.
The commission declined to discipline Kim, though it acknowledged his behavior was “not necessarily appropriate.”
After nearly two hours in the recent hearing, six of the 10 kids, most of whom were Black, were sent back to the detention center attached to the courthouse, including a 15-year-old who had not been accused of a crime but of running away. His mom couldn’t get to the hearing, so he would remain in jail until another option became available.
Most of the others would remain in jail for at least another 10 days, when they would come back to court to do the same thing again.
(Three other children in the lockup, ages 12 and 13, would have their fates decided later, outside of public viewing because of their age.)
In juvenile court, there is no option to post bail. Instead, youth accused of crimes are expected to be released. If a judge feels there is some reason to keep them locked up, a hearing must be held at least every 10 days for the court to determine if they still need to be detained while their case is resolved. Often youths are kept in jail because they’re found to be a danger to themselves or others.
Under Kim’s leadership, children are more often kept in detention. Though the number of kids held in the juvenile jail has decreased with arrests, the percentage of children judges choose to detain jumped about 10% after Kim took office in 2019. He and his associate judges opted to keep 81% of kids in jail at detention hearings this year, according to data from Tarrant County Juvenile Services.
Last year, detained children on average were held 10 days longer than in 2018, kept in the juvenile jail for an average of 26 days compared to 16 before Kim took office, according to county annual reports. So far this year, according to Cockerell’s report, children have been detained for an average of about 25 days.
With kids being held longer, the number of kids in the lockup on any given day shot up from an average of 67 in 2018 to 119 early this year. For most of April, the population surpassed the 120-bed capacity, with a record 138 children held one day. Children had to sleep in the detention center’s library because it ran out of beds.
In June, 92% of the 116 youths detained on one day were people of color, Cockerell reported. The district attorney’s office had not yet moved to prosecute 25 of them. Another 25 had been in lockup for more than 100 days without having been judged for their alleged crime.
Juvenile justice advocates and Tarrant County commissioners have grown increasingly critical of Kim and overcrowding at the detention center in recent months, worried the judge is leading a shift toward old practices that academics say often don’t work to stop criminal behavior in children.
“As a whole we’re still trending towards decarceration, but you have microcosms across the country that are regaining this focus on ‘law and order’ and being ‘tough on crime,’” said Brie Diamond, associate professor and chair of the criminal justice department at Texas Christian University. “The policies and practices that they’re using are not backed by research and by what we know is going to help them fulfill their mission of youths’ lives and community safety.”
For some kids, Diamond said, incarceration is the best option if they are very violent. But for low-risk offenders, she said detention can make them worse and more likely to engage in criminal behavior in the future.
In April, Tarrant County’s Chief Juvenile Probation Officer Bennie Medlin issued a report stating that about 50 kids were being held on misdemeanors or technical probation violations. He suggested the courts prioritize their release to address overcrowding. He also suggested judges stop holding kids based on behavioral reports inside detention, noting children are often required to go without a write-up in lockup for up to 10 days before being considered for release.
Children are also now far less likely to be referred to social services instead of prosecution. While nearly 1,300 cases sent kids into programs intended to divert children from the criminal system in the fiscal year 2019, only 561 did last year. County-sponsored programs offer both youth and parent classes in life skills, character development, social skills, education and pro-social community activities, Medlin said.
And those put on probation more often are ordered to undergo routine drug testing or wear an ankle monitor without any drug treatment or social programming to help them succeed, according to those involved in the system.
“I’ve had complaints from several of the agencies or nonprofits that have provided significant program support that say they are getting very little referrals from this judge,” Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley told the Tribune.
Kim is up for reelection this November, running against juvenile defense attorney Frank Adler, a Democrat. Tarrant County has recently leaned politically purple, narrowly voting for Democrats Beto O’Rourke against U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz in 2018 and President Joe Biden over former President Donald Trump in 2020. But down-ballot races, like local judicial elections, have remained consistently favorable toward Republican candidates.
County Commissioner Roy Charles Brooks, a Democrat, slammed Kim’s courts in a recent meeting, saying he tended to “stack up bodies of juveniles in the juvenile detention center rather than observing previous policies of getting those kids on alternative offense referral plans so that they could be managed in a community-based setting.”
Despite the changes in detention and services, the rate of children committing new crimes within a year of entering the system has remained steady, according to Medlin’s data.
Whitley, a moderate Republican, urged the local juvenile board to defund Kim’s associate judge positions after Cockerell’s analysis found they held only about a third of scheduled hearings among a random sample of about 80 days in the last year.
Whitley said the board could then appoint a visiting judge or give another local district judge authority over juvenile cases, who can act independently of Kim. Last week, the board and Whitley compromised to fund the judges through the end of the year while the board looks at other options.
The county judge said Kim, often described as charming, always has a good excuse for concerns with his case management, but he doesn’t believe there are no alternatives for all of the detained children.
“I can’t believe that we can have the decrease in referrals and the increase in everything else, and that just be, ‘Oh, things are worse than they were five years ago or 10 years ago,’” Whitley said. “We’re talking about kids’ lives, and we’ve got to give them every shot at rehabilitation. Holding them in jail or holding them in the detention center, for many over 200 days, that’s just not in the best interest of the kids.”
Disclosure: Texas Christian University has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
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