Austin American-Statesman – September 27, 2015
by Katie Hall
When Erin Espinosa was a probation officer in Texas, she often found herself between a rock and a hard place when she had to decide whether to keep a girl detained after committing a crime or return her on probation to a troubled home.
"I had a girl sitting in front of me, and I either could send her home to a bad situation — where she would probably experience another trauma — or I could escalate her charge so she could stay locked up where she would be safe,” said Espinosa, now a University of Texas researcher. "But really, is locking kids up a solution to protecting them?”
It’s a question worth debating, Espinosa said, especially now that she has found that girls on average serve longer sentences than boys in the Texas juvenile justice system. Her study, published last week in the latest issue of Criminal Justice and Behavior, looked at 5,019 juveniles across three urban counties in Texas over a two-year period. The counties, which Espinosa declined to name out of privacy concerns, incarcerate about 50 percent of the juvenile detainees in Texas, she said.
The biggest takeaway from this study, Espinosa and other local experts said, is that girls may be spending more time in jail when what they really need is treatment for trauma.
"I think temporary foster homes, shelter homes are better than locking youth up,” said Lauren Rose, who leads the juvenile justice arm of the Austin-based advocacy group Texans Care for Children. "If (girls) do need placement for treatment, such as mental health treatment to focus on that trauma, residential treatment centers that are not secure lockups are more appropriate. What we shouldn’t be doing is locking up victims.”
The big takeaway is that trauma,” said Rose. "We as a state and the systems that serve youth need to be working to identify and address those traumas before it leads to youth acting out in the first place.”