S. Texas county faces juvenile jail overcrowding

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Associated Press

Posted on November 18, 2013 at 12:32 PM

EDINBURG, Texas (AP) — A South Texas county that is the poorest in the nation and faces a booming population of young people is struggling with overcrowding at its juvenile jail facility.

Most recently on Halloween, children at Hidalgo County's juvenile jail again slept on the floor after the detention center exceeded its 96 beds, the McAllen Monitor reported Saturday (http://bit.ly/1ahoA5j ).

The $16.7 million, 137,000-square-foot Judge Mario E. Ramirez Jr. Juvenile Justice Center opened in December 2007, replacing a previous facility that had 28 beds and also had overcrowding problems. But with a rapidly growing, relatively young population, the county has quickly outgrown the new facility.

On Halloween, 110 juvenile offenders were housed at the center, and workers could only find 12 extra mattresses for them, the newspaper reported. Two of the inmates were given blankets to sleep on the concrete floor.

"Who would figure we would need more than 12 mattresses?" Eddie Martinez, the jail's facility administrator, told the newspaper.

The Texas Administrative Code forbids the center from holding more than 96 juveniles. Repeat violations could lead to sanctions and cuts in funding.

But District Court Judge Jesse Contreras said the alternative, releasing the offenders back out into the community, would be worse. He said the center must take inmates, even when it has reached capacity.

"Do we send them out, possibly hurting somebody else? Another student or another adult in the community? Or do we detain them?" Contreras asked.

An audit by the Texas Juvenile Justice Department showed the center has been overcrowded several times since April. Martinez sent a letter informing Contreras about the situation and how overcrowding poses a risk to the inmates and the staff. He also sends the judge a daily headcount of the center's population.

This year, the number of referrals in the area is expected to reach 3,000, Contreras said. Referrals are reports about delinquent conduct handled by the Hidalgo County Juvenile Probation Department. That would mean a jump of 50 percent from what it was two years ago, the newspaper said. However, court delays and paperwork are also to blame for keeping juvenile offenders detained longer than necessary.

Contreras said court records show 20-month-old pending cases missing basic information, including offense reports from police departments, delaying proceedings.

Hidalgo County District Attorney Rene Guerra said his office will work with the court to fix any paperwork problems.

Also, during the past three months, The Monitor observed Contreras routinely arrive late or delay hearings for hours without explanation.

"The judge has a habit of not working in the morning when we need him," Guerra said. Guerra said parents often call his office to complain.

The majority of inmates are not arrested for felonies. Juvenile offenders are placed on probation for nonviolent or misdemeanor offenses. If they violate the terms of their probation, often by running away from home or being reported for truancy or misbehavior, they go back to court and, ultimately, to the overcrowded jail. Most inmates are already on probation, said Martinez.

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Information from: The Monitor, http://www.themonitor.com

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