The 84th Texas Legislature and Juvenile Justice

This is one in a series of blog posts about our 2015 legislative agenda

Click here to download our policy agenda one-pager on juvenile justice.

The number of kids entering the juvenile justice system is on the decline, and since 2007 the Texas Legislature and leadership at the Texas Juvenile Justice Department (TJJD) have implemented a number of reforms to improve outcomes for kids and improve public safety for our communities. However, there is much more to be done to ensure youth are put on a path to succeed while keeping communities safe.

With youth crime dropping both nationally and in Texas, and the costs of keeping 17-year-olds safe in the adult system rising, we agree with the sheriffs and other officials who believe now is the time for the Legislature to Raise the Age of juvenile jurisdiction. Currently all 17-year-olds are considered adults in the Texas criminal justice system, regardless of how minor their crimes are. In the adult system, they are more likely to be assaulted and to go on to commit additional crimes in the future. Our communities would be safer and more teens would turn their lives around if Texas decided to hold them accountable in the juvenile system while maintaining the option of certifying them as adults when courts deem it necessary.

At the same time, we must continue reducing the number of kids who become involved with the justice system by investing more in proven delinquency prevention programming and diversion initiatives that provide youth the services they need without entering the system. In particular, we should try to minimize juvenile justice involvement for younger children. Currently, kids as young as 10 can enter the juvenile justice system.The Legislature should create a committee of experts to study the feasibility of raising the age at which Texans can enter the justice system and how the state can ensure these young kids can get the services and supports they need in a more appropriate system.

In 2013, the Legislature passed legislation that reduced the number of kids entering the justice system through school-based criminal citations issued by police. However, kids are still being removed from their classroom in high numbers as a means of discipline.Youth who are suspended or expelled are more likely than their peers to enter the justice system later, and youth of color, students with disabilities, and LGBT youth are disproportionately disciplined in this manner compared to their peers who misbehave at the same rates. Schools that over-discipline and disproportionately discipline some students must be held accountable.The Legislature should require those schools to develop and implement a plan to correct the problem so that we keep students learning in their classrooms rather than disrupting their education through suspensions.

When kids do enter the justice system, we all benefit if we ensure that their involvement does not negatively impact their ability to get their lives back on the right track.We must ensure they have access to appropriate rehabilitative programming, and they are kept safe. In addition to allocating sufficient funding for youth services, we should provide increased oversight by ensuring all kids in the juvenile justice system have access to the juvenile justice Ombudsman.Currently the TJJD Office of the Independent Ombudsman can only address concerns about youth safety, education, medical care, and other needs for kids who have been committed to the state. Most kids in the juvenile justice system who are locked up away from their parents are in county probation facilities or in placements made by the county. The Ombudsman should have the opportunity to visit all facilities where justice-involved youth are held and advocate for all children in the system if safety concerns are raised.

Finally, Texans Care calls on the Legislature to prohibit the use of Tasers and pepper spray by police on students in school. This issue has taken on a greater sense of urgency since a Bastrop ISD student suffered a traumatic brain injury after a school resource officer Tased him. Last year we called upon the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement, the Texas Education Agency and the Governor to address this issue and were advised that the Legislature would have to take action. We are now looking to our Legislature to provide a solution to safeguard Texas students.

All these measures should be priority as we seek to keep our children safe and successful and ensure better outcomes for our communities.