In November, news broke that five Texas Juvenile Justice Department (TJJD) employees had been arrested for sexual misconduct with youth from the Gainesville State School, where approximately 250 youth are locked up. The reports led Governor Abbott to send Texas Rangers to investigate in the state's five large, remote juvenile secure facilities.
Early this month, those investigations led to the arrest of employees at the same facility for choking a youth until he became unconscious. Additionally, an employee at the state’s Brownwood state-secure facility was arrested for excessive use of force on youth in custody.
As it becomes more clear that the state is housing youth in unsafe facilities, the Governor has stepped up to offer supports to the agency to make sure our youth are safe. In a letter to TJJD's new executive director, he outlined additional supports made available for anonymously reporting abuses in state facilities as well as additional resources to identify sex trafficking victims in the facilities. We appreciate the Governor's concern and action and look forward to working with him to further ensure youth involved in the juvenile justice system are safe and receive the services and treatment they need to become successful adults.
Texas continues to relearn the same lesson: Remote juvenile facilities with many youth are dangerous and ineffective.
In 2007, stories broke of rampant sex abuse and fight clubs led by staff in the state's secure juvenile justice facilities (then called the Texas Youth Commission). Then-Governor Perry sent Texas Rangers into the facilities to investigate abuses while legislators got to work to begin reforming the juvenile justice system. They created mechanisms to move youth out of the large remote lockups and keep them in their communities, immediately closed many of the facilities, and provided additional funding to county-run probation departments to provide more youth with rehabilitative treatment in their community. Due to these reforms, there are now only five large, remote state-run secure facilities housing between 150 and 250 youth each.
When news breaks of staff abuses in these facilities, or even youth misbehaving, it's immediately labeled a crisis or a scandal. But in reality, it's not a new crisis. We are looking at a systemic problem.
The model the Texas juvenile justice system is using — housing youth in large, remote facilities — does not work. It does not keep youth safe. The facilities do not offer an environment to provide youth with rehabilitative services. In fact, the current model of state facilities often returns youth to their communities more likely to reoffend than when they entered the facilities.
Staffing turnover remains high at TJJD — the highest in the state for a large state agency — and filling positions is difficult because the facilities are in small, rural communities. People don't want to work in understaffed facilities that cause them to be overworked in an unsafe environment, making the staffing challenge that much more difficult.
In 2015, the Council on State Governments (CSG) released the report Closer to Home, which looked at how these reforms were working in Texas. While more kids are being kept out of state facilities and closer to home, CSG found that youth committed to state-run facilities are 21 percent more likely to recidivate when they are released than youth with similar treatment needs and offense histories who were kept in their community. In addition, CSG data showed that when youth leaving state facilities do reoffend, they are three times more likely to reoffend with a felony than similar youth on probation. In fact, the report concluded that commitment to a state facility increased the likelihood that a youth would reoffend.
In response to the report, in 2015 the Legislature passed SB 1630 — commonly referred to as regionalization — to keep even more kids closer to home. However, even with a $9.5 million appropriation specifically to divert youth who were headed to state lockups in the first biennium, the number of youth who are sent to the state facilities each year since has not really changed.
It's time to close state facilities and keep youth closer to their homes and families.
The state-secure facilities cannot be "fixed" because the problem is the model of our current system. It’s time to restructure Texas juvenile justice so that these unsafe and ineffective facilities are not needed.
It’s time to close the large, remote state facilities and keep youth closer to their homes while moving more resources to local probation departments so they can hold youth accountable in a way that keeps them safe while providing them support and rehabilitation.
The facilities will need to be closed in phases as it will take time to find appropriate placements for youth currently in the facilities and to create capacity in the front end of the system to safely keep youth closer to or in their community.
To open up space in county juvenile probation and better meet youth’s needs, it’s also important to reduce the number of youth who enter the juvenile justice system because of substance use, a lack of mental health support in their community, or because of misbehavior at school.
As state facilities are closed, high-risk youth could still be held in secure lockups.
A plan to keep youth closer to home does not mean that youth who need to be held in secure confinement while getting their treatment will be released to the streets. Holding youth accountable in secure confinement is still an option.
If the secure facilities already operated by juvenile probation are determined to not have sufficient capacity after moving out those low-risk youth who should not be in secure confinement, the state should look for options like retrofitting current state-run halfway houses into small secure facilities and constructing small, rehabilitative secure facilities near youths’ communities.
State leaders must develop a plan for immediate and longer-term steps.
In collaboration with our advocacy partners, we have developed recommendations outlining what we see as the necessary next steps for juvenile justice reform in Texas, including developing a plan and timeline to close all state facilities.
Key steps that are included in our recommendations and must be included in the state’s plan are:
1. TJJD needs to immediately start reducing the population in each of the state facilities, by:
- moving youth to more appropriate placements like residential treatment centers;
- releasing on parole youth who are low risk who can succeed on parole with services; and
- reducing wait lists for treatment that keep youth in facilities for long periods, etc.
2. Reduce the number of youth committed to state facilities by limiting eligibility for commitment to these facilities but also by ensuring local communities have the resources they need to provide appropriate rehabilitative supports to youth.
3. Create local capacity to keep more youth closer to their home, ensuring probation departments have the resources they need to implement best practices and evidence-based programming for all youth in their care — not just youth eligible for commitment to state facilities — by both investing more state money in probation but also reducing the number of youth who flow into the juvenile justice system.
We look forward to working with state leaders to develop this plan.