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By Didi Martinez
A Houston district court judge who lost a re-election bid on Tuesday is facing criticism for releasing a majority of the juvenile defendants who appeared before him Wednesday after allegedly asking them whether they planned to kill anyone.
District Court Judge Glenn Devlin, a Republican, lost his seat Tuesday to Democratic opponent Natalia Oakes — in a wave of 59 conservative jurists who had been ousted by Harris County voters, NBC Houston affiliate KPRC reported.
And on Wednesday morning, Devlin had made a decision that shocked Steve Halpert, juvenile division chief for Harris County’s Public Defender’s Office.
“The juveniles were asked whether they were going to, if released, whether they would kill somebody,” Halpert told KPRC. “It was a little bit shocking because that’s not a question Judge Devlin would ever ask. Or any judge.”
The judge’s actions were especially incongruous given his track record of incarcerating juvenile defendants, according to local media. A Houston Chronicle investigation in October revealed that Devlin and Judge John Phillips accounted for more than one-fifth of all children sent to Texas juvenile prisons last year, sending them “younger and for less-serious offenses than the county’s third juvenile court.”
And even the people who are tasked with helping young men and women fight their charges were alarmed.
“I am baffled by why he did it,” Harris County Chief Public Defender Alex Bunin told NBC News on Thursday. “It’s definitely not good for the kids in that they are being released without any conditions.”
Bunin said he was worried about the kids released Wednesday, claiming that some of them had no parents or guardians to take them home at the time of their release and that others need support services like mental health treatment.
The public defender also said he is sympathetic to the district attorney’s concerns saying the judge’s move could “endanger the public,” according to a statement by Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg.
“Neither side is happy,” Bunin said. “This is different in that it’s across the board. It’s just never been done without any consideration of the effect of the release of the child and the community.”
But Harris County Juvenile Courts Manager Cindy Milom contested any portrayals of a “mass release” of defendants. She said only seven of 13 juvenile defendants who faced the judge Wednesday were released.
Milom, who said the judge was on vacation and couldn’t comment on decisions he made, is also pushing back on Bunin’s claims expressing concern for the conditions under which the children were released.
“I really find that hard to believe because the public defender did not represent all the juveniles,” Milom said.
Prosecutors told The Houston Chronicle that four of the kids released were facing aggravated robbery charges. Oakes will be revisiting the cases during a reset scheduled for Jan. 4, the Houston paper reports.
The ACLU condemned the judge’s actions Wednesday calling it “improper” and saying it was “motivated by partisan interests” or the “result of his political loss.” The organization has since called on the Texas Commission on Judicial Conduct to launch an investigation.
“Judge Devlin’s mass release of children today, without any apparent concern for the children’s safety or for ensuring that they are released to their parents, proves his detachment from the needs of each child,” the ACLU said in a statement.
“I mean, the day after the election when he wasn’t re-elected, he changed his policy,” Bunin said. “There doesn’t seem to be any intellectual reasoning for it rather than to make a statement.”
Texas’ State Commission on Judicial Conduct told NBC News Thursday that they cannot “confirm or deny” the existence of a complaint against the judge due to confidentiality rules in the state, according to Eric Vinson, executive director of the commission.
Though Vinson declined to comment on specific facts involving the incident, the director did clarify that even an outgoing judge could be subject to an investigation.
“A judge is subject to the discipline of the commission,” said Vinson, noting that the commission has the power to look at a former judge’s actions while they were on the bench.
Oakes responded to a request for comment on Thursday evening saying, “I am out of town but from what I’ve heard I would not expect that from a professional.”