AUSTIN — Outraged by reports of abuses in Texas’ secure facilities for young offenders, lawmakers in a Senate finance committee called for top-to-bottom reform, and they’re not the only ones.
Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, on Tuesday cited a list of problems including sexual abuse, high recidivism rates after the young felons who populate the Texas Juvenile Justice Department’s state-run lockups leave custody and a bloated central administration.
“I’m just going to tell you, you’re not going to be able to leave here today and say you haven’t heard it,” Whitmire said. “We’re sitting on a powder keg at our five juvenile facilities.”
A recent call to action by a coalition of advocacy groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, helped bring added focus on conditions, and the discussion is taking a bi-partisan tone with voices such as the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation joining talk of revamping the TJJD, which Whitmire said is the “worst-performing” of over 200 state agencies.
Lindsey Linder, a policy attorney at the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, said lawmakers could look to East Texas, where Tyler-based Smith County Juvenile Services is doing some “exceptional” work with community based vocational programs for young offenders as an example.
Ross Worley, director of Smith County Juvenile Services, said the agency offers youths instruction in building trades, small-engine repair, welding and auto mechanics.
The Smith County agency also spends about $300,000 per year on mental-health services, employs four full-time licensed professional counselors and two licensed chemical dependency counselors and has a forensic psychologist under contract.
At an annual cost of $6 million per year for the entire agency, with $4.1 million coming from the county, “it’s not cheap,” Worley said.
But “our recidivism rate here is really low: in the single digits,” Worley said.
Whitmire said that recidivism from those who are released from secure facilities such as the Gainesville State School — the site of sexual misconduct between guards and students and multiple assaults on guards, according to Dallas Morning News reports — can reach 73 percent within three years of release.
A 2015 report from the Council of State Governments Justice Center showed that Texas’ youth facilities make young offenders worse instead of rehabilitating them.
In a letter to the lieutenant governor and house speaker, the reform coalition urged a move to local juvenile probation, community programs and small rehabilitative facilities closer to youth’s families.
Nick Hudson, a smart-justice strategist for the ACLU of Texas, said maintaining the secure rural facilities, which house young felons, in remote sites such as Mart, 18 miles east of Waco, makes it hard to hire and retain qualified staff.
“That’s a recipe for the type of abuse that’s becoming public,” Hudson said, adding that, “it’s not funding levels; it’s this model,” that’s the problem.
The cost of putting young offenders into community-level probation is about $50,000 to $60,000 per year, vs. $160,000 per year for locking them up, Fowler said.
Long-term, reforming the system to a less-restrictive model would pay for itself, advocates say.
“We realize there is a problem” at the local facility, Gainesville City Manager Barry Sullivan said.
About 330 employees work at the Gainesville State School.
The facility is among the city’s top 10 employers, but the with local unemployment at 3.3 percent, and an expanding economic base, “Gainesville is in a very good position,” should the state close the campus.
“We don’t know if shutting them all down is the answer,” Sullivan said. “The goal is to get these kids rehabilitated.”
In detailing the situation at the Giddings State School, 55 miles east of Austin, Whitmire noted that offenses among the youth population included capital murder, murder and aggravated robbery.
“We’ve got to go back to the drawing board,” Whitmire said, in dealing with the state’s population of young felons.
But despite his work with community-level rehabilitation, Worley said that doing away with a secure facility altogether is not a good idea.
“You have to weed out those children who are just not going to work the system,” Worley said. “State facilities are needed.”
Preferably, he said, somewhere such as Austin or San Antonio, which could attract and retain well-qualified personnel to run multiple campuses on a large 400- to 500-acre site.
“Centralization in a large city is the answer,” Worley said.
Deborah Fowler is executive director for Texas Appleseed, an Austin advocacy group that last week wrote to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Joe Straus to “express our deep concern over the decades of problems related to state secure juvenile facilities.”
Fowler said she was “really pleased to see how engaged the committee was,” in the Tuesday Senate meeting.
“We hope this presents an opportunity to work toward some good solutions,” Fowler said. “My hope is, we’ll see a working group assembled pretty quickly.”
John Austin covers the Texas Statehouse for CNHI LLC’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at [email protected].