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The Texas Legislature convened this January facing a big task: fixing the increasingly unstable youth prison system.
Proposals on the table ranged from closing the state’s five remaining youth prisons and instead relying on local systems to rehabilitate children involved in criminal behavior to spending hundreds of millions of dollars to build additional state lockups for juveniles.
Ultimately, lawmakers opted for the latter, passing a budget with $200 million set aside to build two or three additional state-run prisons to hold at least 200 more youth. Currently, fewer than 600 juveniles are imprisoned in the state’s prisons.
In a crucial bill that authorizes the Texas Juvenile Justice Department’s continued existence after what is known as a sunset review, the Legislature also passed a provision requiring the transfer of some teenagers from TJJD into the harsher, more punitive adult prison system. Such transfers have already been increasing at TJJD’s discretion as the agency has sought to restore order within its prisons, including that of a 16-year-old who died by suicide shortly after he was sent to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
The measures will go into effect in September unless Gov. Greg Abbott vetoes them this month.
The decisions are a stark reversal from more than a decade of Texas trending away from imprisoning children. With TJJD’s history of scandals, state and county officials have shifted toward keeping more youth who’ve engaged in criminal behavior under local supervision, where research suggests they have the best outcomes. Since 2007, the state has closed eight prisons and shrunk the imprisoned youth population from about 5,000 to less than 600.
The youth still sent to TJJD, however, are often the most difficult to manage because of violent behavior, severe mental health needs or both. Although the sunset bill requires the agency to come up with a plan to find more local resources to keep children closer to home — and the budget gives a boost to local juvenile probation departments and diversion programs — lawmakers also pushed to build more facilities after the state projected more teenagers will be sent to TJJD in the near future after a pandemic-era slump.
Social justice groups have condemned both the plan to build new facilities and the plan to send more youth to adult prisons. The advocates have viewed the recent increase in transfers as a way for the beleaguered agency to throw away the kids with the highest needs. Building more prisons, they fear, will exacerbate the already extreme short-staffing for officers and lead to the same dire situations current prisons have faced.
“The new facilities are problematic, especially given all the problems that have been documented in the current facilities,” said Brett Merfish, youth justice director for Texas Appleseed. “They made it easier to send the youth from TJJD to TDCJ, so that also concerns me. Given the depth of problems, I don’t think this really addressed them adequately.”
For years, TJJD, which is under federal investigation, has been entrenched in repeated scandals over sexual and physical abuse, and the agency has consistently struggled to keep officers on the payroll. Last summer, short-staffing hit emergency levels, leaving children locked in cells up to 23 hours a day, using water bottles and lunch trays as toilets. Self-harm behavior skyrocketed among imprisoned youth, nearly half of whom spent some time on suicide watch.
The agency has since scrambled to recruit and retain more officers, largely by implementing an emergency 15% pay raise. By April, agency staffing had risen to nearly 60%, according to state reports. Although it’s still a dramatically low number, the agency had only 44% of its officer positions filled in August 2022.
The new state budget, which gives the agency a significant boost, will continue those increased pay rates for juvenile prison officers. It also sets aside the hefty investment for new facilities in populated areas, which have been touted as a solution to the problems plaguing outdated rural facilities.
“These facilities are needed, and we are grateful to the Legislature for this funding,” said Barbara Kessler, a spokesperson for TJJD. “We hope to see these modern facilities designed and sited as quickly as possible.”
With the Texas Facilities Commission, TJJD must submit its plan for the new units by August 2024. Kessler said in an email Wednesday the agency would begin working with its partners to determine the number and locations of new prisons.
The size and scope of the units, however, are still unclear. Lawmakers said the new facilities may be designed to serve specific populations, including those with acute mental health needs, the most aggressive or violent youth, or girls. But while lawmakers have touted the benefits of adding smaller, specialized facilities (“I think it’s going to be a game changer,” said state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston), the only requirement put into legislation was for the agency to add a minimum of 200 beds.
Proposals from last year suggest about $200 million would cover two 100-bed detention centers, or three facilities with 40 to 56 beds. A House change to limit each facility to a maximum of 48 beds was stripped out in negotiations. Without specifics, advocates worry the new facilities will turn out to be two 100-bed units without specialization.
“To me that’s just perpetuating the problem and not fixing the ones we have,” Merfish said.
Opponents also worried additional prisons will lead to more children being locked up even if it’s not what is best for them.
“The more beds that we have, the more people we’ll find to fill those beds,” state Rep. Harold Dutton Jr., D-Houston, said in a March legislative hearing.
Outside of the budget, the key changes to TJJD come from the sunset bill. Senate Bill 1727 aims to reshape the agency’s board, and it requires the agency to come up with a plan to keep more kids closer to home by expanding funding to local services or using financial incentives to divert children away from the criminal system.
The bill would also require the agency to request transfers to TDCJ for many of its teens if they commit new crimes while in TJJD. Such crimes would include all first- or second-degree felonies, as well as the less severe but frequently pursued charge of assaulting a prison officer.
Senators have said such transfers are needed to restore order within youth prison walls and remove the most violent and disruptive kids.
“They’ve been sent for help and they’re preventing the other youth from getting help, so we’re trying to hold them accountable when they injure an officer or another youth,” Whitmire said in March when youth justice advocates pushed back on the transfers in a legislative hearing.
Kessler said the new requirement “codifies and strengthens what is generally existing practice” in TJJD, which sent significantly more youth to TCDJ last year than in previous years. She said it is difficult to predict how many more youth will be sent to TDCJ if the law takes effect.
“It supports our mission that youth assigned to TJJD be working toward better behavior,” Kessler said.
Youth justice advocates, however, fear the agency will wrongly push more of its most troubled kids off of its plate using the new requirement. They point to youth like Joshua Keith Beasley, the 16-year-old who died by suicide this year in TDCJ. Beasley had a lengthy history of mental illness and suicidal behavior and was first committed to TJJD at age 11 for kicking a school employee while on probation for vandalizing property. He was sent to TDCJ after hitting and spitting on a TJJD employee.
“When are we going to realize this isn’t criminal behavior?” Merfish asked. “First of all, they’re responding to trauma … but [also] if I’m grabbed by someone, I’m going to have a reaction. If they’re ‘out of control,’ then you’re not doing something right.”
Kessler said the agency will continue to work with youth to set them up for success within TJJD.
“The agency will continue to deescalate violent youths committed to its care, through treatment and programming, so they avoid additional offenses and have a chance at reform in the juvenile justice system,” she said.
Disclosure: Texas Appleseed has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
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