Head of Travis County Juvenile Justice System to Step Down

Judge Rhonda Hurley (Photo by Travis County / Getty Images)

After months of concern about equity and transparency in the county’s juvenile justice system, the boss of the system is stepping down.

Judge Rhonda Hurley, who has overseen the cases of children accused of crimes as judge of the 98th District Court for the last 15 years, announced on Monday that she won’t seek re-election when her term concludes at the end of December 2024.

Travis County’s Juvenile Court, with Hur­ley’s leadership, has invested a lot of time in equity-­focused work, though Hurley’s retirement comes after criticism from several juvenile court attorneys this summer. The attorneys told the Chronicle that although the kids who appear before juvenile court judges are overwhelmingly people of color, Hurley has only recommended white candidates to juvenile court benches for the last decade.

At a Juvenile Board meeting in early June, attorney Skip Davis asked the board to include public input in the hiring decisions, saying, “The process is comprised solely of judges, the upper echelon, if you will, of society, that does not have any contact with my people.” Three weeks later, Judge Aurora Martinez-Jones, who is on the board, sent a letter to Hurley, asking her to schedule a board meeting to discuss the community’s concerns about the hiring process. She also called for the formation of a diversity, equity, and inclusion workgroup.

Hurley did not opt for a public discussion of the concerns, but instead responded within a week with a letter of her own. “I think we need to be careful not to equate the comments of an attorney or reporter to public perception or concerns,” she wrote to the Juvenile Board, referring to her recommendations for associate judgeships. “I believe our time would be better spent reviewing the hiring policy and DEI efforts rather than talking about past events that we have no control over nor can change.”

Hurley also contested Davis’ remark that juvenile court judges are physically and emotionally removed from “his people,” meaning the Black and Brown children who find themselves in the system. “Contrary to what was quoted in the Chronicle about ‘my people’, these kids are not their kids, they are our kids,” Hurley wrote. “Ultimately, we as the Board, are the ones responsible for them.”

The judge finished by saying that no one was more dedicated to the youth in the juvenile justice system than she and that she was proud of her work. “But I cannot do this work without your support,” she said. “I will be deciding my future very soon. I know everyone is wondering.”

Judge Amy Clark Meachum, who is also on the juvenile board, thanked Hurley in a statement on Monday for her three decades of service to the county and said she’d ask the Juvenile Board to appoint a team to prepare for the transition to new leadership.

“Travis County has an exceptionally deep well of talented and gifted lawyers who often run for elected office,” Meachum said. “The voters of Travis County, as well as the members of the Juvenile Board, will be well served to hear new ideas and new visions from the candidates hoping to become the next presiding judge of the 98th District Court.”

Editor’s note: This story incorrectly stated Judge Hurley’s term ends this December; it ends December 2024. We regret the error.

Got something to say? The Chronicle welcomes opinion pieces on any topic from the community. Submit yours now at austinchronicle.com/opinion.