Harris County, Justice of the Peace 7-1

Semester: 2019 Fall

Students: Stefan Lehnardt, Zekariah McNeal, and Daniel Oyolu

Justice Courts in Texas have original jurisdiction over criminal cases involving fine-only “Class C” misdemeanors for both juveniles and adults, which can result in fines of up to $500+. Many of the juvenile Class C charges filed and suspensions are the result of school-based behavior, particularly physical altercations between students, which are charged as “Disorderly Conduct.”

At the moment most juveniles are first offered deferred prosecution, with charges dismissed if they complete the terms successfully.  Justice Courts also hear truancy cases, which are filed as civil claims against students but can be filed as criminal cases against parents.

Judge Jeremy Brown and the Harris County Asst. DA. have agreed to work with social service providers—and four legal service non-profit organizations—to develop a system that would connect youth referred to the court for truancy or non-traffic Class C misdemeanors with these organizations at the youth’s first court appearance.  Judge Brown has engaged the Harvard Dispute Systems Design Clinic to determine whether/how mediation, restorative justice, or other pre or post-filing dispute resolution processes might be added to this model to lower reliance on the filing of charges and suspensions as a means to handle school-based behavior or truancy. The goal is to disrupt the “school-to-prison pipeline” and provide better outcomes for the youth of Harris County.

Activities & Deliverables

  •  Conduct interviews and focus groups with students, parents, educators and other community stakeholders to learn more about the benefits and drawbacks, and interest in alternatives to court involvement and suspension, and what could help reduce reliance on the court.
  • Develop and design potential mediation, dispute resolution, or restorative justice components that could be added to the model, discussing this component with schools to determine feasibility and buy-in.
  • Presentation on assessment findings and design recommendations to the four organizations involved in the pilot, educators, policymakers on the local and state level, and other community stakeholders.
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