Bill would close youth prisons in Texas
A bill filed Thursday would abolish the Texas Juvenile Justice Department and shutter the state's remaining five secure youth prisons by 2030.
Representative James Talarico, flanked by advocates and formerly imprisoned youth, announced the push to close the agency because of the cycles of violence and abuse within its facilities.
The U.S. Justice Department is investigating the five secure detention facilities over allegations of physical and sexual abuse as well as civil rights violations around education.
“It's time to throw child prisons into the dustbin of history where they belong — with child labor and child brides,” the Austin Democrat said.
Talarico’s bill would eliminate the department and place its assets under the Health and Human Services Commission, where it would become the Office of Youth Safety and Rehabilitation.
Rehabilitation has been something TJJD has failed to achieve, he said, with youth who stay there often having much higher rates of future incarceration. He said the money would be better used to intervene earlier and give resources to kids at the local level.
“We've talked about child prisons being immoral, being ineffective, but we should acknowledge they're also very expensive. Three hundred million [dollars] per year for 600 kids — that's $500,000 per child,” he said. “Half a million dollars could buy you the best therapist, the best counselor, the best tutor.”
TJJD has seen three years of increasing scrutiny, scandal and struggle that have all been very public.
Allegations of abuse at the facilities have gone on for years, but were taken up by the Justice Department in October 2021. This was at the same time that the pandemic and low wages drove people out of the agency. The turnover rates through COVID-19 skyrocketed to 71%.
The number of vacancies grew so high that they called in the National Guard to help staff facilities briefly. Staffing struggles last summer led to youth being unable to leave their rooms for 22 hours a day — rooms without bathrooms. Only in recent months have they managed to turn the tide on staffing.
“These dedicated professionals, combined with the strong support we have received from the governor's office and our legislative stakeholders, is exactly what is needed to establish Texas as the leader in juvenile justice reform,” said TJJD Executive Director Shandra Carter in a statement to TPR.
For advocates, it is not enough. For ten years the agency has bounced from one scandal to another, resulting in new leadership each time. The system as it is now will never have enough staff to address reformers' concerns. At its root, Talarico said the system is demeaning and punitive and is a failed policy experiment.
Talarico was joined at his announcement by Houston Democrat Jarvis Johnson, but it wasn’t clear what support the bill will have at the legislature.
The Texas Sunset Advisory Commission — a government agency that periodically reviews other state organs with the power to eliminate them — recommended raises for TJJD staff and hundreds of millions of dollars for two new secure detention facilities and a possible third mental health facility. A bill reflecting those priorities was just filed in the state Senate earlier in the week.
“What was it, $200 million?” Johnson asked, referring to the estimated cost of new secure detention facilities. “Two hundred million too much for another facility. Closing schools and opening prisons just does not make sense to me.”
Another bill from El Paso Democrat Joe Moody gives courts greater discretion in diverting youth from state detention facilities and keeps them local, with more funding for rehabilitation. The passage of the so-called “Closer to Home” bill was made a priority by Republican House Speaker Dade Phelan earlier this week.
But the political appetite to close the state’s five remaining youth detention facilities has evaded reformers for years. The state closed eight of its detention facilities in the past 13 years, after scandal rocked TJJD’s predecessor agency — the Texas Youth Commission.
Since then the number of youth in Texas detention facilities has fallen precipitously to around 650 currently detained and more than 100 on the waitlist, housed in county facilities. Talarico said the research showed a decline in youth crime following the closures. The pandemic saw violent crime referrals to TJJD rise, however, by at times double digit figures.
Reform advocates celebrated Talarico’s bill, using a “finish the job” mantra.
“There are only five that remain,” said Alycia Castillo, director of policy and advocacy at the Texas Center for Justice and Equity. “And I think we have the folks that we need to figure out how we can bring us down to zero youth prisons in Texas.”
Castillo pointed to dozens of correctional, elected and legal representatives who had signed onto a July 2020 calling for the end of youth prisons. It was signed by two former TJJD executive directors, Cherie Townsend and Mike Griffiths.
“Working alongside our juvenile probation partners, we are building a comprehensive continuum that will serve the needs of our communities and youth at every level in our juvenile justice system,” Carter said.
The counties are the beginning point for a youth's journey through the criminal justice system. Several have said they view TJJD as necessary.
"You are not gonna find one [juvenile] chief probation officer among the 164 departments that think closing those detention facilities is a good idea," said Jay Monkerud, president of the Central Texas Juvenile Probation Chiefs Association.
While he wants TJJD to succeed, he and others have been pleading with state officials to fix a system that everyone has seen as extremely flawed for several years.
Monkerud, who is also the chief of Caldwell County's juvenile probation department, said these lockdown facilities are the last resort for violent kids. He said the need was real, if infrequent. He hasn't referred a youth to the state system in 18 months. He questioned whether counties were up to the challenge of dealing with the most serious offenders.
"Some of these kids have done things you wouldn't believe," he said.
But like Moody’s bill, the “abolish” bill aims to keep kids in local facilities and to increase resources along the way.
"Our whole goal is to get counties more support. Our plan has a phased approach to give counties what they need so that we can move beyond our current failed strategy," Talarico said in an email to TPR.
Jennifer Toon was incarcerated in a Texas Youth Commission facility as a child for what she described as a violent crime. She was one of several present that described their experiences in the state’s system.
Toon said the abuse she witnessed inside one of Texas now shuttered youth prisons still haunts her. She always thought if people knew about the abuse, it would stop.
“You can imagine my surprise and my deep sense of feeling betrayed when I got out and started to do this work,” she said. “And to look through the history of Texas youth prisons and see that it has been decade after decade after decade of the same stuff of the same cycles of abuse and reform, abuse and reform.”