Reformed Bill Would Ultimately Shut Down 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.”

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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.