This commentary was originally featured in The Texas Tribune on March 5, 2018.
Gov. Greg Abbott recently called for significant changes to the Texas Juvenile Justice Department, noting the agency faces long-term problems that require legislative action. The current model for state youth lockups is not working, and reports of sexual misconduct and violent behavior by employees at these facilities has filled the news cycle for months.
As the conversation turns to solutions, stakeholders must not lose sight of a primary objective of the juvenile justice system — redemption. Human experience tells us kids have great capacity for transformation. The system aims to leverage the youthful capacity for change into positive outcomes. For better or worse, young people are significantly influenced by their environment, especially their close relationships.
Now consider the current state-run model for youth lockups, which house approximately 250 kids in five facilities, each located in a remote, rural area. A sprawling system with densely populated facilities hardly encourages visitation or family involvement. Instead, it creates considerable barriers for young people to maintain healthy outside relationships. Furthermore, like all large systems, the organizational structure lends itself to a lack of security and fiscal oversight.
Some argue for preserving state youth lockups for the sake of state jobs in rural economies, levying the argument that additional funding is the cure to the juvenile justice department’s problems, as higher wages would attract a high-caliber class of workers to manage the system. But throwing money at an ineffective system isn’t the solution, much less the conservative one. Moreover, any suggestion that a pay raise would deter abuse sidesteps the real problem. Engaging in sexual and violent misconduct is an organizational failing that no amount of funding will fix.
Proponents of the status quo also argue that alternatives to state-run lockups are less secure and compromise public safety. This is not true.
State-run lockups are not the only entities capable of providing secure confinement for high-risk juvenile offenders. Across Texas, there are secure, post-adjudication facilities equipped to safely house youths and keep communities safe. These smaller, local facilities are existing resources worth exploring as part of a cost-effective reform plan designed to produce better outcomes without breaking the bank.
Many kids in the state-run facilities are high-risk, high-need and require secure confinement for public safety reasons. They need to be held accountable for their actions, and secure, residential placement will always remain an important component of the juvenile justice system. But the state facilities are not the only means of simultaneously providing secure confinement for juvenile offenders and maintaining public safety.
To address the root cause of the “revolving door” of issues that afflict the juvenile justice department, stakeholders must consider structural reforms. One of the most effective ways to ensure kids in secure confinement don’t reoffend after their release is to keep their families involved when possible, even during incarceration. This is why moving toward a smaller, community-based residential system is smart policy.
While residential facilities offer rehabilitative services, which are undoubtedly helpful to future success, programming can’t replace people. Conservatives know it is relationships that transform lives. Perhaps more than most, kids in state lockups need the support of family and loved ones as they work to get back on the right path. Implementing a smaller, closer-to-home model would allow for greater family contact and a more efficient transition post-release. Additionally, smaller facilities make for more manageable and thus safer environments, enhancing opportunities for offenders to develop self-discipline and learn life skills.
A smaller, local model means better outcomes for families, safer communities, and smarter spending. But immediately closing all the facilities without careful planning is not the answer, as it could lead to unforeseen consequences and poor outcomes.
Before the next legislative session, research is necessary for practical implementation, including data collection at the local level and fiscal estimates. For the past decade, though, Texas has proven it can execute smart criminal justice reform, and stakeholders are up to the challenge now.