Wednesday’s Children and the Law News Roundup

Reporting on the Plight of Troubled Children, Chicago Tribune

The newspaper learned the state’s main emergency youth shelter in Chicago’sBronzeville neighborhood was overcrowded . . . Police reports, state data, and more than two dozen interviews showed that a lack of available foster homes and other options for hard-to-place children meant some were staying there much longer than a 30-day limit, thus creating occasional overcrowding that had grown worse in recent months.

A runaway problem at the shelter requires hundreds of police visits a year. And the newspaper found that a growing number of older teens with criminal histories are put under the same roof as much younger children – including babies.

State Study: Fewer Kids Getting Arrested at School, Orlando Sentinel

A new state study says the number of students arrested at schools was cut in half during the past eight years, which “correlates” with a decline in juvenile delinquency.

The Department of Juvenile Justice report says school arrests fell from more than 24,189 in the 2004-05 school year to 12,520 last year. School delinquency arrests fell 36 percent during the same period.

“While these numbers continue to move in the right direction, there is much work to be done to reduce unnecessary arrests in our schools,” Juvenile Justice Secretary Wansley Walters said in a statement. “Misdemeanors accounted for 67 percent of all school-related arrests and 51 percent of schoolchildren were arrested last year for their first offense.”

Howard Mediation Center Resolving Conflict at Schools, The Baltimore Sun

Unexplained yet simmering enmity exploded into a series of face-to-face confrontations among about 20 girls at the Homewood Center. Teachers got hurt preventing the arguments from becoming physical, and hallways were often deemed unsafe.

That’s when Howard Community College’s Mediation and Conflict Resolution Center stepped in. The group conducted two informal meetings with the girls — all of whom sat in a circle and took turns talking. Then center staff trained Homewood staff in its mediation and resolution practices.  The Mediation and Conflict Resolution Center has been dealing with conflict in the Howard community for the past 22 years, including boundary disputes between neighbors, anger-management issues of college athletes and disagreements among teacher groups.

At Homewood, not only were the problems between the girls defused; according to Homewood Center statistics on discipline, between a four-month period before the practices were implemented and the four months after, out-of-school suspensions decreased from 196 to 148, office behavior referrals decreased from 299 to 76 and absences decreased from 2,131 to 1,860.

Jefferson Attorney Seeks to Open Juvenile Courts, Louisville Kentucky Courier-Journal

If Jefferson County Attorney Mike O’Connell has his way, Kentucky’s judicial system could undergo a drastic overhaul in the coming year – with a severe loosening of some of the strictest juvenile court secrecy laws in the nation. O’Connell has  proposed a bill that would lift the cloak of confidentiality in juvenile court, following through on a promise he made in July amid controversy over the high-profile case of 17-year-old Savannah Dietrich, who’d been threatened with a contempt charge for tweeting the names of two boys who assaulted her.

Under the proposal, all felony cases involving juveniles aged 13 or older would be open to the public, and other cases in juvenile and family courts would be presumed to be open unless the judge or one of the parties involved could show a good reason to close the hearing.

Harris County Chief Juvenile Public Defender Discusses The Challenges of Establishing A New Urban PD’s Office

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Several weeks ago, Steven Halpert, Juvenile Division Chief for the new Harris County Public Defender’s (PD) Office, spoke at the University of Houston Law Center. The discussion was co-sponsored by the University of Houston’s Center for Children, Law & Policy and three other student groups.

During the hourlong lunch event, Mr. Halpert discussed the challenges of opening a new PD’s office in the nation’s largest city without a public defender’s office. Before the office was opened, Houston was the only metropolitan area in the country without a PD’s office. Mr. Halpert also spoke about the office’s expected growth areas, as well as his vision for the juvenile section to be a resource for all Harris County attorneys defending juveniles.

Biography of Steven Halpert, J.D.

Steven Halpert joined the Harris County Public Defender’s Office in October 2011. Prior to joining the PD’s office, Mr. Halpert was a private practice criminal defense attorney for eight years. Prior to private practice, he was an Assistant District Attorney in Harris County from 2000 to 2003. Mr. Halpert has been the Treasurer of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association for the past four years, has served as Treasurer of the Houston Bar Association Criminal Law & Procedure Section, and is currently the chair of the Houston Bar Association Animal Law Section. He has been licensed to practice law in both Texas and Maryland since 2000. Steven Halpert received his J. D. from the University of Baltimore, graduating with Magna Cum Laude honors, in 1999. He graduated from Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri in 1986 with a B.S. in Political Science.

The Development of the Harris County Public Defender’s Office

In August 2010, the Texas Task Force on Indigent Defense awarded Harris County a $4.1 million grant to establish a Public Defender Pilot Program. The grant can be renewed for four years, at which point the burden to fund the PD’s office will shift to Harris County.

In November 2010, Alex Bunin was appointed Chief Public Defender by the Harris County Commissioner’s Court. He was tasked with establishing a new office in one of the nation’s largest cities. Today, the Harris County PD’s office represents indigent clients in misdemeanor, felony, and juvenile courts. The office has felony trial, mental health, appellate, and juvenile divisions. In addition, the office has added four to five investigators and several counselors.

The juvenile division is the newest section of the office, opening in December 2011. Today, there are eight assistant public defenders working in the division. Juvenile division attorneys can be appointed by the judges of the 313th, 314th, and 315th Juvenile State District Courts.

Wrap-up of the Event

Steven Halpert discussed some of the challenges and frustrations of establishing a new PD’s office. For example, the grant received to establish the PD’s office anticipated receiving PD appointments from all three juvenile courts. There is no requirement that juvenile judges must appoint attorneys from the PD’s office.Therefore, judges can continue to appoint private attorneys if they choose. However, one juvenile judge has chosen not to appoint attorneys from the PD’s office at all. Mr. Halpert explained that this judge has stated that he wishes his court to be a “control” group that will help demonstrate whether the PD’s office has been a worthwhile endeavor.

Because of judicial hesitancy to appoint public defenders, as well as other circumstances, Mr. Halpert expressed some frustration with the amount of appointments his office was receiving. He stated that the Texas Task Force on Indigent Defense grant was preconditioned on the expectation that his office would receive one out of every four juvenile appointments in Harris County juvenile courts. To make up for the “control” group court that has chosen not to appoint PDs, Mr. Halpert would need to receive nearly 35% of appointments from the remaining two courts. According to Mr. Halpert, this is an unreasonably high number.

Steven Halpert envisions the juvenile division of the Harris County PD’s office to be an aid to the private bar. He wants to “shed the myth” that the PD’s office should be feared by private attorneys. The need for private attorneys will always be present because co-actors cannot both be represented by the same office or firm. The crimes that juveniles are accused of often occur with a co-actor. Therefore, even if one juvenile is appointed to represent a juvenile, a private attorney will always be necessary to represent the co-actor.

In addition, Mr. Halpert sees his office as playing an advocacy role in changing some of the rules and procedures that make it difficult for all juvenile defense attorneys to zealously represent their clients. He provided an example of working with other Texas public defender offices and the Harris County District Attorney’s office to make offense reports more readily available for defense attorneys.

One particularly bright spot in the discussion came toward the end of the lunch hour. Many attorneys guide their juvenile clients toward probation, with the hope that after the probation period their clients will be able to have the claims against them dismissed and their records sealed. Mr. Halpert cited a dismal statistic that 40-50% of all juveniles are back in court within six months on a probation violation. Mr. Halpert expressed his inclination to avoid probation pleas when a plausible defense was available.

The Harris County Public Defender’s Office was established to provide top-notch representation for the indigent, as well as raise the level of representation throughout the defense bar. Hopefully, the attorneys working in the new PD’s office won’t be stifled by the overwhelming caseloads and low payment rates that often burden private attorneys. As the juvenile division grows from infancy into an established office, attorneys and families across Harris County hope that the office will lead the way in providing the best quality representation that truly advocates for clients’ wishes.