Judges’ work in progress as Tarrant County leaders push juvenile courts to fix problems

Tarrant County’s top elected official said Saturday he plans to eliminate the jobs of two juvenile judges who have heard only a third of their scheduled hearings, possibly contributing to overcrowding at the detention center.

The move would be the most drastic response yet to the myriad problems the Star-Telegram has reported in the county’s juvenile justice system, including teenagers being held illegally in adult jails, hundreds of youth hearings posted on YouTube with a reality TV following. and claims that racism has contributed to the incarceration of a disproportionately large number of black and Hispanic youth.

County Judge Glen Whitley said he and commissioners will approve a 2023 budget Tuesday that compensates for the two associate judge positions. He previously proposed cutting their jobs in August after first reviewing a consultant’s report detailing judges’ light workloads. But Whitley has now confirmed that he plans to eliminate the positions when the board approves a proposed $916 million budget on Tuesday.

Eliminating the two positions would cut the budget by $500,000, Whitley said.

Whitley left open the possibility of alternatives if the Juvenile Board makes recommendations that commissioners agree on. The Juvenile Board an advisory board made up of judges.

Whitley hopes commissioners can meet with the board by October.

“We will let (the two judges) remain in place until Jan. 1,” Whitley said. “And if they haven’t made any recommendations and we come up with something that we’re comfortable with, then on January 1, those connected courts will no longer exist.”

The two associate judges are Andy Porter and Cynthia Terry. They are appointed and answer to Judge Alex Kim, who runs Tarrant County’s 323rd Juvenile Court and oversees the detention center.

The Star-Telegram reported that one of the judges canceled or delayed 61 percent of the 744 hearings on the docket, while the other failed to hold 67 percent of the hearings, according to a consultant’s review. Staff members at the detention center referred to this judge as the “ghost” court because it met so rarely. Sources told the Star-Telegram it involved Terry’s court.

Since the report, judges have started showing up for work every day in recent weeks, a source told the Star-Telegram.

Terry is running unopposed this fall to be the judge of the 325th District Court. Porter is running for the No. 4 Criminal District Court seat.

Despite skepticism from the Juvenile Board about defunding the positions, Wheatley said commissioners still have the power to make the change through the budget. Whitley believes the votes will be there to make it happen.

Kim opposes defunding the two positions and previously told the Star-Telegram that he trusts Whitley would note that the 323rd District Court “has been the most efficient” during the pandemic and has “the lowest backlog in Tarrant County.”

Whitley said that while Kim gives “good explanations” for the problems with overpopulation, others tell a different story that makes the explanations difficult to evaluate.

“The problem is, I’m hearing agencies that have provided services for our youth for decades say things are not going well,” Whitley said. “I hear people, I hear officials, I hear judges say that.”

Kim did not immediately return a message Saturday seeking comment.

Whitley said he was disturbed by a Star-Telegram report last week that included how Kim kept his videos live with underage audiences on his popular YouTube account, where they had 1.7 million views until he removed last year. In one video, Kim forces a 12-year-old to reveal the names of adults who gave him guns, putting him at risk of retaliation. Kim also told the 12-year-old that she could no longer contact his mother because she had not attended an audition.

“To me, even if a 12-year-old has committed a murder, he should be able to talk to his mom,” Whitley said. “And maybe even more so because he’s in the detention center for murder. So, I’m just annoyed — I’m annoyed by a lot of things. It always bothered us that these YouTube videos were so public.”

Kim allowed anonymous real-time comments during his live-stream hearings. Some users made racist comments and encouraged Kim to be cruel to minors.

While all judges turned to videotaping during the pandemic, Kim continued the practice long after court resumed.

County commissioners raised concerns about racism after a consultant’s report on overcrowding noted that on one particular day this summer, 107 incarcerated youths were of color and nine were white.

Kim told the Star-Telegram last week that “the racial disparity in the entire criminal justice system is troubling.”

Judge Alex Kim’s juvenile court videos earned him YouTube fame. They also put children at risk

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