Expand Authority of State's Juvenile Justice Ombudsman

This commentary originally appeared in the Austin American-Statesman.

When disturbing reports of abuse in the state’s juvenile justice facilities came to light eight years ago, the Texas Legislature moved quickly. News of traumatized, vulnerable and isolated teenagers facing sexual assaults and fight clubs organized by guards horrified legislators, parents and ordinary Texans.

The Legislature moved many of the youth to programs closer to home and established an independent ombudsman to monitor youth rights and safety in the state facilities.

Looking back at the initial policy changes and subsequent improvements, the Legislature was successful in steering many youths in the system away from the trauma that breeds more crime and toward the services that help youths heal. Now the Legislature is poised to continue those reforms and ensure there is more oversight to protect more youths in the system.

The centerpiece of this session’s reform effort is Senate Bill 1630 by Democratic state Sen. John Whitmire of Houston, who chairs the Senate Criminal Justice Committee. SB 1630 would reduce the number of youths locked up in state secure facilities and keep more youths closer to home. Evaluations of the earlier rounds of reforms show the move will save money and help more youths get on a path to success.

The bill is complemented by two other high-profile juvenile justice reforms. First, truancy reforms seek to keep more students in the classroom rather than in criminal court. Second, sheriffs, judges and other officials support a plan to include most 17-year-olds in the juvenile justice system.

The effort to expand the role of the juvenile justice ombudsman has not been in the spotlight but is no less important. The chair of the House Committee on Juvenile Justice and Family Issues, Democratic state Rep. Harold Dutton of Houston, is seeking to make the change through House Bill 3277; Whitmire’s juvenile justice reform bill also includes a narrow expansion.

The ombudsman plays a unique role in the juvenile justice system, identifying and raising awareness about systemic problems and advocating for individual youths’ rights and safety. However, current limitations on the role of the ombudsman leave some system-involved youths vulnerable.

One 15-year-old who did not have access to the ombudsman was Christian Cuellar-Gonzales. Christian died in a fight with a 16-year-old at a privately run residential treatment center in 2014. Because the Travis County teen was under the supervision of the county probation department rather than the Texas Juvenile Justice Department, the ombudsman could not investigate complaints made about the center where Christian was held.

It’s hard to know if this tragedy could have been avoided if the ombudsman had access to all youths and facilities in the juvenile justice system. But we do know that in the future more youths will be safe and receive the support they need to turn their lives around, and legislators will be less likely to hear horror stories from juvenile justice facilities, if the Legislature expands the authority of the ombudsman to protect youth in more facilities.

This legislative session has great potential for protecting youths and helping more kids move beyond their mistakes and on to a path of reform and rehabilitation.

Lauren Rose is juvenile justice policy associate at Texans Care for Children.