Last month, the Dallas Morning News uncovered an internal email from the Texas Juvenile Justice Department. It said that at least four staffers at the Gainesville State School, a lockup for juvenile offenders, could be sent to prison for sexual misconduct at the facility. The Juvenile Justice Department is no stranger to scandal. And to fix it, a set of advocacy groups have an idea – close all of its facilities and completely rethink how the state houses young offenders.
Texas Appleseed is one social and economic justice group involved in the effort. Executive Director Deborah Fowler co-signed a letter to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Joe Straus last week that outlines the problem and suggests a solution.
“This is something we’ve actually known for a long time,” she says. “The first round of legislation in the 2007 session actually focused on conditions in facilities. We had very similar allegations of systemic problems with staff and sexual abuse.”
The legislature put measures in place to ensure that there would be more oversight, according to Fowler. When this didn’t work, legislators shifted their focus to changing the way the facilities work.
“Instead, they started to move money out of state secure facilities and close them, and move money into the probation budget so that kids could be treated closer to home,” she says.
Fowler supports this move and cites research that proves it works. In 2015, the Council of State Government’s Justice Center published a report that found that youth who are treated closer to home, through probation, have better outcomes than those who are committed to state secure facilities.
But in recent years the legislature’s focus on reforming juvenile justice efforts has flagged, according to Fowler.
“We did not continue to see closing facilities prioritized,” she says.
Fowler’s first hand experience working with incarcerated youth informs her opinion that Texas should continue moving away from incarceration and toward probation in exacting juvenile justice.
“I have spent hours and hours in these facilities talking to kids and what you find when you talk to them is that they have had significant histories of trauma,” she says. “So, naturally, when you place a child who has experienced that level of trauma in a setting where we are not only not able to treat them but also not able to keep them safe from additional trauma, the result is going to be catastrophic for the child and for the community that they are returning to.”
The letter Fowler co-signed, along with the ACLU of Texas, calls on the Texas Legislature to establish a timeline for sending home the juvenile offenders held in the five remaining facilities in the state.
But the Texas Juvenile Justice Department says not so fast.
“Those [probation] facilities don’t exist today. And this issue has to be addressed,” says Executive Director of the Juvenile Justice Department David Reilly.
Reilly says that his department has addressed the issue of reporting misconduct by staff.
“Today, we have a very robust reporting system,” he says. “Kids in these secure facilities have access to a special phone line that they can [use to] report. We have the office of the independent ombudsman who’s out in these facilities at least every month talking to kids, talking to staff.”
What hasn’t changed, and what seems to be out of the hands of the Texas Juvenile Justice Department, is a staffing issue at these facilities. Reilly says the turnover rate for staff in state youth incarceration facilities is 40% a year. This makes it hard to hire good people, Reilly says.
“We haven’t been able to prevent hiring [bad] people any more than the public schools, or really any youth activity, have. That’s where people who have an unhealthy interest in kids are attracted to.”
The letter from Fowler and the ACLU suggests that the rural nature of the existing facilities is contributing to this problem.
“It would be a challenge to appropriately staff these facilities anywhere in the state, but it is impossible when they are located in rural communities with small populations from which to recruit staff,” it says.
Reilly agrees with the suggestion in the letter that the Legislature set up a joint committee to study the issues facing the juvenile justice system and to come up with a plan.
“Our facilities are not safe enough today,” he says. “They’re not safe enough either for kids or for staff.”
He attributes this, in part, to the reallocation of resources away from incarceration facilities thanks to the work of advocates like Fowler and the ACLU.
He says, “There’s been a great reluctance to provide any more resources to a model that no one really likes.”
Written by Kate Groetzinger.