This commentary was originally published in the Houston Chronicle.
Just four years ago, Texas lawmakers made a sensible decision to reduce the use of large, expensive, ineffective state-run prisons for kids who break the law. The decision followed reforms in 2007 and 2009 to ban incarceration in the state-run prisons for youth who committed misdemeanors and to discourage counties from committing youth to the facilities.
Combined with declines in juvenile offending, the population of the five remaining Texas Department of Juvenile Justice (TDJJ) lockups has fallen to about 850 young people from more than 5,000. Moving the lower-level offenses into county-run facilities left the state responsible for a smaller (but not small) population of teenagers who were adjudicated on more serious offenses. Even after the reforms, no state has more kids in its state-run prisons.
It’s a deeply challenging cohort with complex needs for their rehabilitation, and the challenges didn’t start with them. Two-thirds of the 4,000 youths admitted over the last five years are not the only incarcerated member of their household. Almost half are victims of family violence. Most of them have been in the prisons before, and many will return.
Nevertheless, Sen. John Whitmire has vastly overstated the offenses that led these adolescents into a juvenile prison and offered a counterproductive solution to the problems inside their walls. He authored and shepherded Senate Bill 2190, a bill that would change state law to allow young people to be held in former adult facilities. It passed the Senate in April. His intention is to close the five juvenile prisons and move hundreds of kids to one central location: the notorious and now-empty Bartlett State Jail, which held adult prisoners until it closed in 2017.
Youth advocates share Whitmire’s ongoing fury and frustration with Texas’s juvenile prisons. Each of this century’s reforms were preceded by scandals from chaotic environments to sex abuse to other forms of violence.
That said, Texas’ plans seem to be working. The number of youth (people younger than 17) arrests has fallen by a third over the last five years. In 2015, the Council of State Governments, which helped craft the Closer to Home plan, found that youth released from the five state-secure facilities were three times more likely to commit a felony than youth under community supervision.
Opposing Whitmire’s plan is not an endorsement of the status quo. Last fall, the Department’s Ombudsman found that the youth held at the Gainesville State School, “frustrated by lack of activities and continued or extended confinement in rooms” protested “to call attention to issues on campus.”
Stunning staff shortages, including 40 percent vacancies for Correctional Officers at the McLennan County State Juvenile Correctional Facility, have led to gang-related problems and violence that threaten the young people and the staff alike. Such conditions do not foster rehabilitation or help young people mature into responsible adults. More than half the youth released from juvenile facilities will be arrested again within a couple years.
And sending 850 youth to one facility would make a bad situation worse. Large facilities such as Gainesville and McLennan were once fairly common; in 2006, 42,000 young people (roughly half of incarcerated juveniles) were held in facilities with more than 100 residents. By 2016, the last year for which there are national data, 11,000 young people were in places that big. Only three percent (1,400) of all incarcerated youths were held in a 200-plus youth long-term secure facility, and Bartlett holds five times that many.
Outside of Texas, places like that have mostly disappeared.
The declines in youth violence within these facilities occurred when populations have declined. A report from 2018, just before the Gainesville and McLennan problems quelled such optimism, said the “reduction in population levels at TJJD secure facilities” coincided with “positive improvements in … the use of force, restraints, youth-on-youth assaults, youth-on-staff assaults and a 67.6 percent decrease in complaints to the [Ombudsman] when compared to the same time period” in the prior year.
The best solution to Texas’s juvenile prison problems is to send fewer of our kids there in the first place and spend money on community-based alternatives.
Josh Rovner is the senior advocacy associate at The Sentencing Project.