An audit examining Tarrant County’s juvenile justice system last year revealed a series of systemic issues: overcrowding, long stays in detention centers and judges hearing few of their assigned cases. 

Those problems impact children of color the most. At the time of the audit, 92% of kids held in Tarrant County’s juvenile detention center were minorities: 67% were Black and 25% were Hispanic. 

Community Frontline, a local nonprofit focused on racial justice and education, hosted a two-hour panel discussion Oct. 2 about how the juvenile justice system operates in Tarrant County; why it hits kids of color hardest; and how it can improve in the wake of the audit. 

Tarrant County juvenile justice director Bennie Medlin joined FWISD school board member Quinton Phillips, juvenile defense attorney Frank Adler and A&M law school student Danyelle Honoré on the panel. 

Since the audit findings were released, the system has made strides in addressing its overcrowding and lowered the length of stays, Medlin said. But work remains, and some of it comes down to available resources. 

“I think the county commissioners need to help inner city families a lot more than they do,” Adler said. “I can’t imagine that anybody in the panel can disagree with me. We see it every day. We need more money.”

Racial disparities 

The panelists agreed that oftentimes minority kids have the odds stacked against them long before they end up in the juvenile justice system. They pointed to existing economic disparities in Tarrant County, and the pressures Black and brown kids face in every aspect of their lives. 

“Yes, most of my serious cases are brown and Black kids,” Adler said. “But there’s a whole bunch that goes into that. Income, are they lower income, school, how were they raised? Do they have a single parent working two jobs? Are they raising themselves?” 

The problem isn’t unique to Tarrant County. In Texas and nationally, minority children are overrepresented in the juvenile justice system.

“I’m sad to report that when you look at most juvenile systems in Texas and across this country, you’re gonna see the significant disparities in representation of kids of color,” Medlin said. 

Honoré said just because kids of color make up the majority of those detained in Tarrant County, that doesn’t automatically mean they’re committing significantly more crimes than their peers. 

The school-to-prison pipeline — which refers to the funneling of kids from public schools into the criminal justice system — has a greater impact on Black and brown kids, she said. The increasing prevalence of school resource officers to combat school shootings opens up more opportunities for that disparity.

“A lot of times, Black and brown kids are referred to law enforcement for the same offense that their white counterparts are not referred for,” she said. “And so there’s a lot of different internal biases that happen in the classroom, that happen in the schools with regard to the administration.”

Previous Fort Worth Report coverage has shown that Fort Worth ISD has a documented pattern of suspending Black special education students at a higher rate than their white peers.

Before joining the FWISD school board, Phillips served as a probation officer. That experience lends him a different perspective than other school board members, he said. 

“We have 89% kids of color in my district,” he said. “And we’ve yet to create any systems that actually filter and cater to them. We’ve been forcing them into a system that wasn’t designed for them in the first place. So what are we going to do with that?” 

Mental health care

Tarrant County opened its Mental Health Jail Diversion Center in January 2022. It’s designed to provide mental health treatment to people who have been arrested for low-level offenses and avoid booking them into jail

But no such mental health center exists for juvenile offenders. That’s a problem, Adler said. 

In the past several years, he’s seen a spike of kids in the juvenile justice system with mental health issues. Detention centers don’t help them get better, Adler said, and in some cases can make existing conditions worse. 

“We had a very, very, very, very difficult case a couple months ago,” Adler said. “This young man had such severe mental health needs, he was incompetent. But he was in our detention center, and we had nowhere else to send him. He should not have been in our detention center because he was acting out. He couldn’t behave himself; he was assaulted.”

What are the possible outcomes for a kid who is found to have broken the law?

Probation: released back out to the community with supervision from a probation officer. There may be additional terms of their probation, such as attending drug treatment.

Placement in a Texas Juvenile Justice Department facility: serve out a determinate or indeterminate sentence at a state facility.

Medlin said the juvenile detention center does have psychiatrists and therapists on staff, and contracts with other community organizations to provide counseling services. But he acknowledged that those interventions are usually short term.

“Detention is not designed for long-term treatment,” he said. 

To help kids like the one from several months ago, Adler said, the county needs to invest in a juvenile mental health center — the status quo isn’t working.

“In Tarrant County, we have really no good answers,” he said.

Community resources

At the end of the day, Medlin said, the solution can’t come solely from the juvenile justice system. It needs to be community centered, with organizations involved in every layer of kids’ day-to-day lives. 

“Kids shouldn’t have to come into our system to get the care they need,” he said. 

Organizations like Community Frontline and gun violence prevention group One Second Collaborative are part of the solution, he said. 

“There’s a need for wraparound services,” Honoré said. “There’s a need for states and localities to really address poverty, to address different unaddressed trauma. Kids, or just people in general, don’t just commit crimes … A lot of times it’s due to some type of unaddressed trauma.” 

Phillips also emphasized the importance of voting. In Tarrant County, voters appoint a juvenile judge who oversees cases, alongside three judges of their choosing. Current Judge Alex Kim beat Adler in the 2022 election. Judges make the final decision as to whether a child gets parole or time in a state facility.

Likewise, county commissioners make final funding decisions for the juvenile justice system. If you want to see funding for the system, Phillips said, vote for a commissioner who will make it happen.

“We got great people in place who want to do great things,” he said. “But we got to get them the funding in order to do some of the stuff that they actually want to do.”

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Emily Wolf is a local government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Originally from Round Rock, Texas, she spent several years at the University of Missouri-Columbia majoring in investigative...