Harris County is the third largest populated county in the nation and as such overcrowding in the juvenile justice system is a significant problem. Harvey Hetzel is executive director of the Harris County Juvenile Probation Department. He says the county only has 250 juvenile detention beds.
"That's pretty low. And today we have 211 kids in detention. But we've been as high as 318, 322. So we've been beyond capacity at times. I think that we want to look at alternatives short of going out and building more buildings and having to staff those buildings and that sort of thing. We want to look for alternatives and utilize alternatives where appropriate and certainly utilize detention where it's appropriate as well."
So the Annie E. Casey Foundation is bringing its Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative to Harris County. The Foundation works with community agencies to divert juveniles away from a lengthy involvement in the justice system. Harris County Judge Ed Emmett says they want to be able to take kids who have committed crimes and get them back into society, rather than just warehousing them as criminals.
"The vast majority are kids who have made a mistake and it's going to be a lot better if we can find ways to have alternatives rather than just incarceration so that those kids become productive citizens, become tax-paying citizens, rather than becoming people who live off the tax-payers through a prison system."
On the adult side of the justice system there's bond. But juveniles don't have bond and officials have to figure out other ways to detain or monitor juvenile offenders. Hetzel says he thinks Harris County will pose a challenge for the Casey Foundation as they attempt to come up with new ways to address the detention system.
"As I said before, only having 250 beds, we have to exercize a lot of those alternatives and I think we've done that. I think that things that have been explored in other jurisdictions - development diversion programs with law enforcement agencies where not everybody is brought to detention - we've implemented a lot of those major things. But there's some other things out there that might be appropriate."
Hetzel says some of the alternatives could include taking youths out of detention and putting them into foster homes. Another idea could involve an after-school reporting site, where students could be monitored until their parents get off work. Laurie Johnson, Houston Public Radio News.