Texas judge releases juvenile defendants after losing election
Judge Glenn Devlin asked the youths if they were planning to kill anyone and then let them go
By Keri Blakinger
HARRIS COUNTY, Texas — After losing his bench in a Democratic sweep, Harris County Juvenile Court Judge Glenn Devlin released nearly all of the youthful defendants that appeared in front him on Wednesday morning, simply asking the kids whether they planned to kill anyone before letting them go.
"He was releasing everybody," said public defender Steven Halpert, who watched the string of surprising releases. "Apparently he was saying that's what the voters wanted."
In court, prosecutors voiced their concerns about the seemingly indiscriminate release of those accused of everything from low-level misdemeanors to violent crimes.
"We oppose the wholesale release of violent offenders at any age," Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg said in a statement later. "This could endanger the public."
In total, at least seven kids were released, prosecutors said, including four facing aggravated robbery charges.
When reached by phone Wednesday, Devlin declined to comment.
The longtime Republican jurist — whose seat was among 59 swept by Democrats in Tuesday's election — 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.
But despite the differences in their courtroom practices, all three of the juvenile court judges — all Republicans — lost their benches to Democrats in Tuesday's election by at least 10-point spreads.
With the dust still settling from a massive shake-up in the local judiciary, Devlin showed up for Wednesday's detention hearing docket apparently ready to surprise.
By law, youths who are waiting in local lock-ups 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 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."
Some of the children didn't have parents present in court Wednesday. Of the juveniles who appeared before the judge, Halpert said he only saw one detained.
All of the cases, he said, were reset to Jan. 4, the first Friday after Devlin's replacement takes the bench.
That replacement, newly elected jurist-to-be Natalia Oakes, did not immediately respond to a request for comment and the State Commission on Judicial Conduct declined to clarify whether Devlin's actions would constitute any violation of judicial canons.
Criminal justice advocates, however, were critical of the decision.
"Judge Devlin appears to be abdicating the basic responsibility of any sitting juvenile judge," said Elizabeth Henneke of the Lone Star Justice Alliance, a group that works to get young people out of the justice system and into treatment programs.
She called Devlin's post-election actions "disappointing and shocking" and something she'd never seen in a Texas juvenile court.
To Alex Bunin, the county's chief public defender, the sudden leniency was simply baffling.
"I'm not sure that I can wrap my arms around what he's actually doing," he said. "It's a huge change and the only thing that has happened is that he was not elected so I don't know what to attribute it to other than that."
To Jay Jenkins, a policy attorney with the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, the post-election spate of releases reinforces the decision the local electorate made Tuesday.
"The voters of Harris County clearly wanted a change in the juvenile courts and Judge Devlin today is showing us why the voters may have wanted change," he said. "We're hoping now the juvenile courts can be a much fairer and more equitable place."