Officials dispute ‘mass’ releases by judge
Court administrators object to description of actions taken at juveniles’ hearings
Two days after a Harris County judge who lost a bid for re-election made waves by asking a string of juvenile defendants whether they planned to kill anyone before letting them go, court administrators put out a statement disputing the description of “wholesale” releases and highlighting the number of kids detained.
“Despite many media reports, there was no ‘mass’ or ‘wholesale’ release of detained juveniles during November 7, 2018, docket in the 313th District Court,” the Administrative Office of the District Courts wrote in an unsigned statement released late Friday.
Juvenile Judge Glenn Devlin has not commented publicly on the releases and did not show up for court the following day. In court, his coordinator wouldn’t say where he was, whether it was a planned absence, or when he might be back.
The furor began Wednesday morning when — to the surprise of attorneys present — the longtime Republican jurist released most of the defendants appearing before him for detention hearings.
“He was releasing everybody,” said public defender Steven Halpert, who was in the 313th court that morning. “Apparently he was saying that’s what the voters wanted.”
Prosecutors begged the judge not to let out the young defendants, and Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg later condemned the releases.
“We oppose the wholesale release of violent offenders at any age,” she said Wednesday. “This could endanger the public.”
As previously reported, the judge let out seven kids — including four charged with aggravated robbery — during detention hearings. By law, youths who are waiting in local lockups before their cases are resolved are entitled to detention hearings every 10 working days to decide whether they need to stay behind bars or can safely be released under supervision.
It’s not abnormal for Devlin to sometimes release juveniles facing serious charges, as long as they’ve behaved in detention and have adequate supervision in place on the outside, according to Halpert.
“He’s not one of those that never releases a kid charged with an aggravated robbery,” he said. “But nobody has seen this before.”
The court office’s release stressed that, aside from the seven releases, six kids scheduled for detention hearings that morning remained in lock-up. However, it was not immediately clear whether those six children actually had detention hearings or waived them. Halpert said that practice is not uncommon.
In its statement, the court office also claimed that the judge did not let out any children without parents present.
“Reports that Judge Devlin released juvenile respondents without parents present, without access to mental health services, and/or other protective parameters is inaccurate,” the court statement said. “All seven juveniles released on November 7, 2018, were released to parents or legal guardians who agreed to provide 24hour supervision.”
Though he said that he could not speak in detail about specific cases, Chief Public Defender Alex Bunin disputed that claim, citing one instance in which a child was let go without a parent present and another in which an intellectually disabled child was released to an intellectually disabled parent with no supervision plan in place.
The district attorney’s office did not offer any response to the court statement, which also detailed release conditions for some of the juveniles. It’s not clear whether those conditions were in place at the time of the children’s release or added later.
Cases for all of the kids released, according to Halpert, were reset for Jan. 4 — the first Friday after the new judge takes over.
The State Commission on Judicial Conduct previously declined to comment or clarify whether Devlin’s actions would constitute any violation of judicial canons, but the ACLU of Texas called for an investigation and said it was weighing its options to take action on the matter.
“We call on the Texas Commission on Judicial Conduct to investigate Judge Devlin for violating the canons of judicial conduct,” said Sharon Watkins Jones, ACLU of Texas director of political strategies. “It is improper for a judge to make orders motivated by partisan interests or spite as a result of his political loss.”
The outgoing jurist — who on Tuesday lost his bench to Democrat Natalia Oakes — is one of two juvenile court judges in Harris County whose track records favoring incarceration contributed heavily to doubling the number of kids Harris County sent to the Texas Juvenile Justice Department in recent years, even as those figures fell in the rest of the state.
A Houston Chronicle investigation last month found that Devlin and Judge John Phillips accounted for more than one-fifth of all children sent to the state’s juvenile prisons last year. The two jurists not only sent more teens to juvenile prison, but they also sent them younger and for less serious offenses than the county’s third juvenile court, where Judge Mike Schneider presides.