New Court Space in Lubbock County Better Serves Juveniles

A redheaded teenager stood in her Lubbock County-issued orange jumpsuit one Friday afternoon in late June and promised the judge sitting in front of her she would stay out of trouble if she were allowed to live with family as her criminal case moved forward.

However, Lubbock County Magistrate Judge Melissa Jo McNamara decided, after reviewing the evidence presented by the district attorney's office, it was best for the girl to stay at the county's juvenile justice center for the time being.

The Lubbock Avalanche-Journal reports the girl, flanked on both sides by her attorney and relative, accepted the judge's decision, wiping a tear from her eye, and was led out of the courtroom after which another teenager stood before the judge for his detention hearing in the newly built 1,200 square foot courtroom, which opened in the last week of June after a year of construction as part of a nearly $2 million project.

Such orderly proceedings weren't the norm for about two decades, when multiple juveniles were crammed in one of two ancient portable buildings refashioned as a courtroom that sat outside of the juvenile justice center.

"We have never had this much space in a juvenile court proceeding," McNamara said of the new courtroom after proceedings that day.

McNamara travels to the juvenile justice center about three times a week to oversee juvenile court proceedings. The most common proceeding is a detention hearing, which take place every 10 days while a juvenile is held at the center. Juvenile criminal cases proceed as civil cases under the state's family law code. Unlike adult defendants, juveniles cannot be released on bail, instead they go before a judge for hearings to determine if they should remain in the state's custody while their case is active.

The county's juvenile justice center was built in the 1960s to detain children accused of delinquent behavior. At present, the center has 96 beds for children between 10-16 years old.

Before the late 1990's, probation officers used their personal vehicles to take the juveniles to the Lubbock County Courthouse downtown for their court dates. It was common for the children to escape from the vehicles, which were not locked. Juvenile justice officials were also criticized for parading the children through the courthouse lobby, which was the only way they could enter the building to go to court. Juvenile justice officials couldn't take the children through the paths for inmates as Texas law forbids juveniles to be within sight or sound of adult inmates.

County commissioners by 1998 decided the security and safety risks were too great to continue bringing juveniles downtown for court and bought two portable buildings from the Lubbock Independent School District to serve as an on-site courtroom and a meeting place for juveniles, their parents and attorneys.

The portable buildings sat about 80 feet north of the center and were surrounded by a chain link fence that snaked around the property. Juveniles were walked to the buildings in all kinds of weather and could be seen from the parking lot by onlookers.

"It was very small and it wasn't very private if you're from a juvenile perspective," McNamara said.

Typically, five juveniles at a time would be taken to the courtroom for hearings, but it wasn't unheard of that up to 20 juveniles would go to the courtroom. The juveniles, their parents and attorneys crammed in meeting rooms with doors that didn't close for security reasons.

Jim Shaw, a defense attorney who has handled juvenile cases for 17 years, said conversations with his clients often involved sensitive information that could be heard from the other rooms.

"This is a lot better," he said of the additions. "Everybody was hearing everybody's business (in the old building)."

In the old courtroom juveniles waited in the tiny gallery and came before McNamara one at a time. Sometimes proceedings would become unruly as juveniles would cause disturbances in the courtroom as they waited. The new addition also includes waiting rooms where juvenile sit before they are led into the courtroom.

"It's definitely more orderly and a controlled environment in the new courtroom as compared to the old courtroom," she said.

Kim Hayes, who is in charge of juvenile cases at the Lubbock County Criminal District Attorney's Office, said the courtroom, which is decorated with similar dark-brown wood paneling found in courtrooms at the Lubbock County Courthouse, brings a formality she hopes will make a better impression on the juveniles of the seriousness of the proceedings so they can take their cases seriously.

"I can see juveniles thinking their case is not important because they don't have a formal courtroom," she said.

William Carter, the juvenile justice center's director, made it his priority to include a courtroom attached to the building when he took over in 2011. He said the previous director had also worked on getting county officials to consider the project.

"It's been in the works for a number of years," Carter said.

A year later, a construction project was placed on the county's capital projects list for an 8,000 square foot expansion of the juvenile justice center to include a courtroom, offices for a judge and probation workers and parking lot extensions, said Lyle Fetterly, the county's facilities director.

The project reached the top of the list in 2016. Construction started in June of that year at a cost of about $1.7 million and took about a year to complete, Fetterly said, adding that the bulk of the costs went to resurfacing and extending the center's parking lot.

"We almost doubled the size of the parking lot and we added parking lot lights," he said.

Carter said the portable buildings that served as the court room will be re-purposed as classrooms for the juvenile justice center's alternative education program.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
Contact Us