Harris County Juvenile Centers 2021 Winter Holiday Surprise

Image of some of the gifts that were donated for the Juvenile Centers in Harris County.

The holidays should be a wonderous time for children. But this year, thousands of children across the United States will spend the holidays behind bars and in residential facilities away from their families and loved ones. With the Covid pandemic continuing to rage on, it has become even more difficult for families to connect with their kids currently housed behind bars.

While we know it’s no replacement for enjoying the holiday season with loved ones outside of the confines of these facility walls, the students at the University of Houston Law Center have continued their tradition of collecting gifts to donate to the kids with the hope of making their holiday season a little brighter. This year, we’re pleased to report that with the help of many generous donations, we were able to meet out fundraising goal. This coming week, we will be delivering donations to the over 200 children housed at the Harris County Detention Center, Leadership Academy, and Youth Village. Notably, we were able to donate stockings that the kids will be able to decorate and which the staff will fill with goodies (this was a big hit last year). Some of the stocking stuffers will include body wash, deodorant, playing cards, candy, granola bars and other snacks, combs, hand sanitizers, lip balm, and holiday socks. Additionally, we’ve assembled toiletry kits for some of the kids that will be released and sent home as well as board games that can be played to help pass the time.

We couldn’t have done this without the help of our extended community of generous donors. Happy Holidays to all!

3 Stories You May Have Missed During #YJAM

1) Earlier this month, WPLN in partnership with ProPublica published an investigation into wrongdoing in the juvenile justice system in Rutherford County, Tennessee. The story centers around the 2016 arrest of ten black elementary school students who had been caught on video witnessing a fight; the children were charged with “criminal responsibility for the conduct of another,” which is not in fact a punishable offense under the state’s criminal code. Investigators uncovered grossly problematic judicial oversight and widespread departmental misconduct—including the use of an illegal “filter system” for processing juveniles into detention—in a county that jails children at a rate nearly 10 times the national average.

https://wpln.org/post/black-children-were-jailed-for-a-crime-that-doesnt-exist-almost-nothing-happened-to-the-adults-in-charge/

As a result of this reporting, eleven members of Congress have petitioned the Department of Justice to conduct an official investigation into Rutherford County’s juvenile justice system.

https://wpln.org/post/members-of-congress-are-asking-for-an-investigation-into-rutherford-countys-juvenile-court-following-wplns-report/

2) Last week, the New York Times published an article detailing the abuse faced by children in Texas’ juvenile detention centers. According to interviewees, detention facilities are short-staffed—partly due to the pandemic—and without adequate supervision, kids confined to their rooms grow restless and are more likely to act out. Staff members have resorted to the use of physical violence to maintain order: unruly detainees have been subjected to beatings, pepper spray, as well as solitary confinement. These problems have persisted in the state’s juvenile justice system for decades despite numerous reform efforts and lawsuits brought by various child advocacy organizations.

https://www.nytimes.com/2021/10/13/us/politics/texas-juvenile-prisons-abuse.html

3) Just this week, over 200 people imprisoned for crimes committed as juveniles in Oregon may become eligible for parole hearings or conditional releases under Governor Kate Brown’ s new commutation plan. The plan operates as a sort of constitutional salve for inmates serving time under the state’s mandatory sentencing measures regarding serious offenses. The governor’s order—which some experts have called “unprecedented”— emphasizes the importance of adolescent development considerations and the potential for rehabilitation for individuals incarcerated at a young age.

https://www.opb.org/article/2021/10/21/oregon-governor-grants-review-hearing-for-some-juvenile-offenders/

https://kobi5.com/news/local-news/hundreds-of-oregons-serious-juvenile-offenders-may-be-granted-clemency-under-commutation-plan-171229/

Harris County Street Law Mock Trial Competition

The best time of the Street Law Course is the mock trial competition, typically held at the end of the academic year. During this time the students compete to win as the best mock trial team of the year. The teams the students are in are based on the location they are taking the street law course at, which can vary from community programs to their actual high school. All the students competing are high-school aged.

During the academic year, the students in street law are being taught by 2nd, 3rd, or even 4th year (part-time) law students that attend the University of Houston Law Center. Typically, the students have the street law course two or more times a week. Many of the students in the street law course can take it for high school credit. Throughout the first semester of street law, as street law is a year-long academic course, the students are learning foundational understandings of civil and criminal law. The mock trial problem that the students get is going to be either civil or criminal, but it is unknown until closer to or during the second semester

The curriculum the instructors are teaching the students helps understand which students will be better for which roles during the mock trial competition. For example, if there is a speaking activity that the students need to do. The ones that like to lead the group will more than likely be the lead attorney for the mock trial competition. Another example, if there is an activity that involved bringing out one’s personability and one of the students does that exceptionally well. Then that student will more than likely be considered to hold a witness role, as witnesses need to have unique personalities.

Once the mock trial packet is received, the excitement begins. The next step is to read the entire mock trial packet to get an understanding of the laws being used, facts, jury verdicts, and evidence. During this time students are starting to use their critical thinking skills to analyze how the rules of the law might apply to the facts. All these skills are typically derived from the knowledge the students have gained over the year in the street law course. There are usually two to three witnesses for each side of the case that gave a sworn deposition in the packet. The students understand these witnesses and what their motives, credibility, and intent are in the case. Each one of the witnesses is played by one of the students in the mock trial so it is important to fully understand what the role of the witness is in the case. Additionally, in the case packet are the laws that will be applied in the case, which the students break down and use persuasively towards the facts given for their respective party in the case. The students are also given the jury form to help understand what it is the jury will be measuring to make their final verdict based on how well the case and chief, opening, and closings were presented. Being thorough and effective when presenting the case is of the utmost importance for the students to win.

Next are the attorneys. There can be two or more attorneys for each side. The students must prepare an opening statement, direct and cross-examinations for all witnesses, and a closing argument. Typically, each one of these sections is done by two or more student attorneys. The student attorneys also get a chance to learn courtroom evidentiary proceedings. This allows the student attorneys to have an opportunity to keep out certain types of evidence that might hurt their case. Once at trial, the students dress professionally and put on their case versus the other respective street law locations in Harris County. This is when the countless hours spent prepping for the mock trial, practicing with all witnesses, preparing opening and closings are put on a show. In the mock trial tournament, there are brackets, kind of like March Madness, except it is not single elimination. The brackets are random, and teams are scored by real attorneys and judges who practice in the field. The scores the students receive throughout the first two to three rounds determine which teams will go to the semifinals. It is as simple as the four teams with the highest scored through those first two to three rounds move on. Usually, there are about 12-16 teams in the tournament, so it can get quite competitive. Once the semifinals are concluded the two teams who won that round versus the team, they went against will move on to the finals. The two teams in finals compete for first place and whoever wins is the Harris County Street Law Champion of that academic year. There are awards and trophies/medals awarded for the team that won and individual awards as well for top performances.

The tournament pre-Covid was always held in person and took up an entire day. Post-Covid it has been virtual taking place over two days. Hopefully, we get the opportunity to do it in person back, as it brings everyone together. This is a great time for everyone involved and I believe having this tournament for the street law students gives them a real opportunity to see the value of understanding the law and possibly wanting to have a career in the legal field.