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Juvenile Justice Transformed, Youth and Community Safer

Column by Commissioner Cook

  • 17 December 2020
  • Author: Doris Sanchez
  • Number of views: 2351

Mathews says, “We only want to hold a child in detention as a last resort and only when there are no viable programs or services readily available to provide support and ensure youth and community safety.”

Most commonly, youth are brought before juvenile court so that Williamson County Juvenile Services can formally provide support services to the youth and family.

Under our current Covid-19 restrictions, a child will be accompanied by a facility supervision officer in the Juvenile Justice Center courtroom. Others attending include the Judge, defense attorney, juvenile prosecutor, parent or guardian, witnesses and probation officer. However, during the pandemic, everyone involved must attend virtually.

Texas law requires all youth to have legal representation at all court hearings, and almost 85 percent of juvenile cases qualify for a court-appointed attorney. Wilco currently has about 20 attorneys on the juvenile appointment list. 

Evidence is admitted through the typical process of questioning witnesses. If the defense attorney must consult with the client during a hearing, the virtual hearing is temporarily muted or paused. The attorney consults with the client via phone or virtually. Court coordinators are instrumental in keeping this process operating efficiently.

At detention hearings, the Judge decides only whether a child should remain in detention or released based on certain conditions that help ensure the child will return safely to court later to address the charges through an adjudication and disposition. The juvenile Judge will routinely order substance abuse treatment, mental health services and/or counseling, often requiring family participation.

Some of the counseling and other services are state- and county-funded. Juvenile Services counseling staff can provide all services virtually. Occasionally a parent with sufficient funds or insurance hires private providers.

At the final stage of the juvenile court process after adjudication (finding of delinquency) and before disposition (determination of appropriate conditions to support rehabilitation), a “treatment team” involving the family, a case manager, counselor, attorney, mentor and input from the education team or other service provider make recommendations to the court.

While the virtual process provides many advantages regarding efficiency, Mathews says she misses in-person juvenile court, an environment difficult to reproduce in a virtual setting. There is no substitution for personal interaction where youth and their families can witness firsthand the collaboration and care dedicated to their individual cases.

Wilco’s juvenile court avoids pandemic-related backlogs as Mathews continues holding detention hearings, adjudications, dispositions and modifications of probation virtually.

 In 2019, many of the 660 referrals to juvenile court were released administratively without a detention hearing, increasing efficiency.

Also, Mathews’ court completes both agreed orders (agreements by all parties) and trials she decides with regularity because fewer than 5 percent of all juvenile cases result in a jury trial. 

Mathews says it is rewarding to be the judicial leader who, with her team, has brought everyone together–prosecutors, defense, juvenile staff, community partners and probation officers—to work toward a common mission.

She believes supporting youth and families coming from hard places through a trauma-informed approach involving a balance between structure and nurture is the right thing to do.

According to Mathews, nearly 85 percent of all youth whose cases are adjudicated and disposed through her court do not reoffend.

I rest my case!

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