The Texas juvenile detention system has a long and checkered past when it comes to improprieties and safety concerns. According to The Texas Tribune, the problems continue, and the Texas Juvenile Justice Department lacks the staff necessary to ensure the safety of minors in the system or to cope with the onslaught of suicidal behavior among its incarcerated youth.
To make matters that much more difficult, the governor has funneled millions of dollars in funding away from the juvenile justice system and toward his border security initiative.
If someone you love faces a juvenile charge, it is time to reach out to a dedicated criminal defense attorney with significant experience successfully guiding these challenging cases toward beneficial resolutions.
As of early July, the doors of the juvenile detention system in Texas are closed to any youth who are not already housed within the system. This moratorium is based on what has been described as a “hemorrhaging” of staff – in addition to the fact that officials are not confident that the safety of the 600 juveniles who are already in the system’s custody can be ensured.
The Tribune obtained a letter from the Texas Juvenile Justice Department (TJJD) stating that emergency protocols are currently being employed in the five youth lockups across the state as the staffing shortage at each “becomes more grim.”
The Current Risk
According to the Juvenile Justice Department’s interim director, Shandra Carter, “the current risk is that the ongoing secure facility staffing issue will lead to an inability even to provide basic supervision for youth locked in their rooms,” which highlights the terrifying reality of the situation.
The acting director went on to advise juvenile probation leaders that the dwindling staff numbers could seriously decrease their ability to effectively intervene in the rising threat of suicidal behaviors exhibited by those juveniles who are psychologically impacted by the isolation of room confinement.
Currently, 331 juvenile correction officer positions are unfilled, and only 391 available officers staff the facilities.
With the current crisis in mind, any minors who are sentenced to serve time in a TJJD facility will be housed in a local detention location – most of which are experiencing their own deficits. When TJJD intake was halted, there were 130 youths in these county facilities waiting for placement.
The TJJD interim director shared the following strategies for attempting to cope with the issues at hand:
Attempting to restart TJJD intakes as swiftly as possible by shifting staff to different units
Determining if any of the juveniles housed in the TJJD system are eligible for release
Halting intensive interventions for those youths convicted of violent crimes
An Ugly Reputation
Lockups for juveniles across the State of Texas have a dark reputation associated with all the following issues:
Dangerous environments for youth
In fact, in late 2021, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) announced an investigation into whether or not the TJJD is capable of providing – or is providing – the reasonable efforts necessary to protect the juveniles housed within its system from both physical and sexual abuse from both staff and other juvenile residents.
The investigation would also determine whether or not the Texas facilities engage in an excessive use of chemical restraints, isolation, or both.
The Texas Tribune reported on the DOJ’s investigation into TJJD, which was instigated in April by the arrest of a former staff member who faced an accusation of improper sexual activity with a person in custody. The detainee was an eighteen-year-old woman who claimed that the staffer touched her breast.
For over ten years, TJJD has faced cascading reports of a lack of control in the facilities as well as ongoing sexual and physical abuse. In 2021, youth advocates pleaded for the federal government’s intervention – claiming that TJJD permitted “grievous violations of children’s constitutional rights.”
The DOJ’s response stated, “Too often children held in juvenile detention facilities are subject to abuse and mistreatment, and deprived of their constitutional rights. State officials have a constitutional obligation to ensure reasonable safety for children in these institutions.”
For its part, the TJJD said the agency was prepared to cooperate with the investigation fully.
The then-director of TJJD, Camille Cain, also responded with a statement ensuring that the department’s goals aligned with those of the state and federal government, which are providing for the safety and effective rehabilitation of the juveniles in their care and providing them with the best possible chance of moving forward into rewarding and productive futures.
A 2017 Scandal
Cain joined the TJJD in 2017 in the face of its most recent scandal (at the time), which was reported by The Dallas Morning News and which alleged that guards in a North Texas state school were sexually abusing juvenile detainees. The breaking story shook things up considerably, resulting in the following reactions:
Advocates for youth demanded that all five of the state’s juvenile facilities be shut down.
The governor deployed the Texas Rangers, which led to numerous arrests.
State senators voiced their commitment to a “total shakedown” of the TJJD.
Although Cain committed to building a better, safer system, reports of both physical and sexual abuse continued to haunt the agency. Youth advocacy groups at the time also reported that low staffing resulted in gang activity that went unchecked throughout the state facilities.
The 2007 Scandal
The fact is that the TJJD is no stranger to scandals. One scandal in 2007 prompted legislative reforms that reduced the system from about 5,000 juveniles in custody to under 700. The reform also decreased the number of state-funded lockups from 12 to 5.
The 2007 abuse scandal prompted more and more county judges to find better options than committing juveniles to state facilities.
A Funding Shift
Carter, the acting director of TJJD, came on board in April when Cain left abruptly after four years on the job. Immediately preceding the announcement of Cain’s departure, the governor shared that he would be shifting funding away from the juvenile justice system and toward Operation Lone Star (the governor’s own multibillion-dollar border patrol initiative).
Cain has not shared her reasoning for her about-face, but she had requested more than $31 million in funding for coronavirus relief just weeks prior to the governor’s shift in funding (in the same amount).
Youth advocates have long championed the closure of youth lockups run by the state, and they believe that the current staffing emergency highlights how important it is for Texas to adopt a fresh perspective in terms of juvenile justice.
An advocate for youth justice in Texas puts it this way: “We already had a backlog of services . . . that didn’t have enough people to provide the therapy needed. How extreme does it have to be to say, ‘OK, we have to do something different?’”
Juvenile Charges in Texas
In Texas, the juvenile court handles a wide range of charges, including the following offenses:
Drug crimes, including juvenile possession of drugs or alcohol
The consequences of adjudication can alter the course of your child’s life, which makes taking prompt action – by consulting with a savvy criminal defense attorney – in the face of any juvenile charge paramount.
In Texas, juvenile delinquency is defined as actions performed by juveniles that could potentially result in criminal penalties, including actions such as the following:
Any acts that are in violation of criminal law in the state and can lead to jail time or a prison sentence, including Class B misdemeanors
Any acts that are in violation of a court order or that are in contempt of court and punishable by fine
Any acts that amount to a driving while intoxicated (DWI) offense (a third or subsequent DUI (driving under the influence) offense by a minor is also defined as delinquent conduct)
Juveniles in Texas can also face legal consequences for engaging in actions that indicate the need for supervision, such as failing to attend school, running away, or violating a school policy related to conduct.
The Consequences of a Juvenile Delinquency Conviction
Juveniles are not convicted of juvenile delinquency in juvenile court. Instead, they are assigned the status of juvenile delinquency, which is a form of adjudication rather than a conviction. However, the consequences can be exceptionally harsh. Consider the following potential penalties:
Loss of driving privileges or a suspended driver’s license
Loss of the right to participate in specific educational programs
Ineligibility for some private schools or colleges
Ineligibility for certain jobs
Incarceration in a state juvenile detention facility
Substance abuse treatment
The purpose of Texas’s juvenile system is not to punish youths but to rehabilitate them – helping ensure they do not end up in the adult criminal system.
If your child is facing a charge, he or she may be eligible to receive an alternative penalty outside the juvenile court system, which can help him or her bypass some of the strictest penalties, including having a juvenile record.
If you are seeking alternative penalty options for your child, contact a skilled criminal defense attorney right away. He or she will have the legal knowledge to guide your child’s case toward its best possible outcome.
Drug court may be an option for initial offenses and minor drug charges. Your child’s participation in drug court is strictly voluntary. The court’s goal is to decrease substance abuse and other forms of delinquency via intervention, family support, treatment for chemical dependency, and education.
Deferred prosecution refers to a kind of exchange in which the charges your child faces are dropped and replaced by probation – typically for a term of six months – in which he or she must meet certain requirements. The juvenile court, the probation department, or the prosecutor can instigate deferred prosecution in place of formal adjudication.
These diversion approaches generally break down into first-offender programs and deferred prosecution.
When Juveniles Are Tried as Adults
In order to be tried as a juvenile, the person accused must be under the age of eighteen at the time of the crime’s commission. Further, a child must be at least ten years old to qualify as a juvenile.
However, this does not mean that every alleged offender who is under the age of eighteen will be tried as a juvenile. Teenagers who are at least seventeen – and sometimes younger – can be charged as adults if the crime is especially serious or the teen has a record of repeat offenses.
Not All Juvenile Charges Lead to Detention
If your child faces a juvenile charge, it does not mean that he or she will necessarily be detained in a state facility. In fact, many – if not most – teen offenders are released to a parent or guardian after their detention hearings are completed. The determinative factors are generally how serious the charge your child faces is and your child’s criminal record to date.
One of the most important steps you can take to help ensure that your child does not land in detention – and that the consequences he or she faces are minimized – is working closely with a knowledgeable criminal defense attorney from the outset.
Discuss Your Concerns with an Experienced Killeen Criminal Defense Attorney Today
Brett Pritchard at The Law Office of Brett H. Pritchard – proudly serving Killeen, Texas, for many years – is a well-respected criminal defense attorney with an impressive track record of helping parents like you obtain advantageous outcomes for their children facing charges in juvenile court.