Lina Hidalgo, a 27-Year-Old Latina, Will Lead Harris County, Texas Biggest

Lina Hidalgo, a 27-Year-Old Latina, Will Lead Harris County, Texas\ Biggest

Texas judge releases defendants after election loss

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 Countys Public Defenders 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 thats not a question Judge Devlin would ever ask. Or any judge.”

In her race for county judge, Ms. Hidalgo beat Ed Emmett, who spent eight years in the State Legislature before being appointed as county judge in 2007 after his predecessor resigned. He was elected in 2008 with more than 53 percent of the vote to finish out the term, and re-elected in 2010 and 2014 with about 60 percent and 83 percent of the vote.

The judges 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 countys third juvenile court.”

But on Tuesday, Ms. Hidalgo, a 27-year-old Democrat, narrowly won an upset election to lead Harris County, which includes Houston and is the third-most populous county in the country and the largest in Texas. She beat the 11-year Republican incumbent to become the first woman and the first Latina elected to the county judge office.

Judge Glenn Devlin is facing criticism for releasing nearly all defendants who appeared before him after asking if they planned to kill anyone in Harris County District Court in Houston. via glenndevlin.comAnd even the people who are tasked with helping young men and women fight their charges were alarmed.

Ms. Hidalgos victory showed that the elections also yielded significant changes at local levels, including in the fast-growing, multicultural metropolis of Houston. A record 17 African-American women were elected to judgeships in Harris County, in a campaign they called Harris County Black Girl Magic.

“I am baffled by why he did it,” Harris County Chief Public Defender Alex Bunin told NBC News on Thursday. “Its 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.

After she decided to run for office, she put her degree on hold. During the campaign, she drew on her immigrant background and focused on criminal justice reform, transparency in county government and flooding control after Hurricane Harvey and other severe storms ravaged Houston.

The public defender also said he is sympathetic to the district attorneys concerns saying the judges 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 its across the board. Its just never been done without any consideration of the effect of the release of the child and the community.”

She and her family fled their home country of Colombia as a drug war raged, arriving in the United States in 2005. She studied law, public policy and political science at elite universities as she pursued a career influencing government from the outside.

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 couldnt comment on decisions he made, is also pushing back on Bunins 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.

He said that without the straight-ticket ballots, he would not have expected Ms. Hidalgo or some other local Democratic candidates to win their elections. He said Mr. Emmett was a centrist politician with cross-party appeal.

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 judges 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.

Im not tied to the powers that be, she said in an interview on Thursday. People were inspired. Their hearts led them to speak up in a year in which our democracy seemed to be under threat.

“Judge Devlins mass release of children today, without any apparent concern for the childrens 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 wasnt re-elected, he changed his policy, Bunin said. There doesnt seem to be any intellectual reasoning for it rather than to make a statement.

For Ms. Hidalgo, arriving in the United States in 2005 and going to a public high school presented a contrast with the corruption and violence she had seen in Colombia.

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.

After that, she worked for a nonprofit promoting press freedom internationally and as a Spanish-language interpreter at the Texas Medical Center in Houston.

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.

Last year, Texas enacted a law eliminating straight-ticket voting starting in 2020, in part because it discourages voters from researching candidates.

A judge is subject to the discipline of the commission, said Vinson, noting that the commission has the power to look at a former judges actions while they were on the bench.

Ms. Hidalgo said she decided to run for office after the 2016 election because of the divisiveness it displayed. She ran as an outsider candidate.

Oakes responded to a request for comment on Thursday evening saying, “I am out of town but from what Ive heard I would not expect that from a professional.”

In 2015, Ms. Hidalgo began pursuing a joint degree in public policy and law at the Kennedy School at Harvard University and New York University.

Hours after losing his bid for re-election, a Harris County, Texas judge released almost all the youthful defendants who appeared in front of him, apparently saying it was what voters wanted.

Juvenile Court Judge Glenn Devlin asked the seven kids in his courtroom if they planned to kill someone before releasing them, the Houston Chronicle reported.

You couldnt go to the grocery store without worrying about a bomb, she said. Everyone knew somebody who had been kidnapped.

"He was releasing everybody," said public defender Steven Halpert, who watched the string of surprising releases. "Apparently he was saying that's what the voters wanted."

This didnt happen by accident, she said during her victory speech on Tuesday. Weve been working on this for 15 months.

"'If I release you, are you going to go out and kill anybody?'” Halpert quoted Devlin as saying to his client and others.

After responding they wouldn't, Devlin said ‘OK, you're released,’” Halpert said.

Devlin and the county’s other two juvenile judges – all Republicans – were ousted from their seats in favor of Democrats on Tuesday by at least 10-point spreads. In all, Democrats swept 59 local Texas courts.

The American Civil Liberties Union is calling for an investigation into his actions, KTRK-TV reported.

Prosecutors voiced their concerns over releasing offenders accused of everything from low-level misdemeanors to violent crimes. Four were facing aggravated robbery charges.

"Judge Devlin appears to be abdicating the basic responsibility of any sitting juvenile judge," said Elizabeth Henneke of the Lone Star Justice Alliance, a group that works to get young people out of the justice system and into treatment programs.

A Chronicle investigation found that Devlin and another judge were responsible for more than one-fifth of children sent to the state’s juvenile prisons last year.

He has released kids facing serious charges before, but as long as they behaved in detention and will have sufficient supervision while free, Halpert said.

"He's not one of those that never releases a kid charged with an aggravated robbery," he told the paper. "But nobody has seen this before."

Alex Bunin, Harris County’s chief public defender, was confused by Devlin’s sudden leniency.

"I'm not sure that I can wrap my arms around what he's actually doing," he said. "It's a huge change and the only thing that has happened is that he was not elected so I don't know what to attribute it to other than that."


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