Nearly 100,000 children are caught up in Texas’s juvenile justice system each year—many of them suffering from severe trauma, substance abuse and mental health problems. While an increasing number of youth are being diverted to community-based supervision and treatment programs, others continue to be housed in county or state secure facilities.
These institutions are too large and too remote, resulting in staffing problems, low family involvement, high youth-on-youth violence and ineffective rehabilitation. And although county facilities are able to keep youth closer to family and community resources, research shows that for most youth, time spent in any secure facility harms rehabilitation. What’s worse, some kids as young as 14 are still sent to adult facilities.
In recent years, Texas legislators and policymakers have adopted reforms in the criminal justice system that move away from the expensive, marginally effective “lock-‘em-all-up” approach to punishment, toward a more sophisticated, effective one. State juvenile facilities used to be little more than preparatory academies for crime, but that is now changing.
Since shocking revelations in 2007 about mistreatment and sexual abuse of youthful offenders by the staff of the Texas Youth Commission (TYC), reforms been implemented that have made juveniles in state secure facilities safer and have reduced the institutions’ average daily population down from 3,642 in 2006 to only 1,221 in 2011.
Jim Hurley, spokesman for the Texas Juvenile Justice Department (formerly known as the TYC) reports:
Once insular and defensive, the agency appears now much more willing to listen to outside advice and opinions. The state has provided more training since juvenile justice reforms were implemented and the number and rate of youth-on-youth assaults has decreased at state secure facilities.
A recent survey of 115 detainees at the Giddings State School found that “youthful offenders feel safe and hopeful about their futures.” The interviewees called for even more training for detention facilities staff and moving kids from remote locations so as to enable greater family involvement.
Benet Magnuson, a policy attorney with the Youth Justice Project, explains:
The state is on the right track to keeping juvenile offenders closer to their homes. When kids are in their community and the county has invested in local programs, you’re going to see better outcomes in terms of safety, family involvement, rehabilitation and treatment.
According to the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, county-run secure facilities need grant funds, technical assistance, accountability standards and oversight to develop and effectively implement best practices to strengthen their diversion and treatment infrastructure. The Coalition stresses that all programming and services for juveniles must be age-appropriate and emphasize their unique needs.