TJJD Board Approves Reforms Aimed at Reducing Violence

Update, 4:30 p.m.:

The Texas Juvenile Justice Department board has appointed Jay Kimbrough interim executive director of the agency, effective July 1. 

Kimbrough, who had been acting as special assistant for safety and security since May 8, arrived at TJJD amid reports of increasing violence at the youth lockups. Kimbrough served in 2007 as conservator for the Texas Youth Commission after reports of rampant sexual and physical abuse. 

Current TJJD Executive Director Cherie Townsend announced May 29 that she would retire at the end of June, after serving in the position since the new department was created in December. Previously, she had served as the executive director of the Texas Youth Commission.

Update, 2:30 p.m.:

 

The Texas Juvenile Justice Department's board voted on Friday to implement new reforms aimed at reducing violence in the state's troubled youth lockups, despite advocacy groups' requests for a delay.

The board approved establishing the "Phoenix program," aimed at moving certain unruly or violent youth to a specific facility for specialized treatment and intensive supervision. The board also lifted the cap on the amount of time youth can spend in the "Redirect program," which provides intensive behavioral treatment for troubled youth without moving them to separate facilities.

Original story: 

Advocacy groups are calling on the Texas Juvenile Justice Department to delay a decision on new proposals aimed at reducing violence in the state's troubled youth lockups. 

The proposed reforms, which the TJJD's board members are scheduled to bring up for a vote on Friday, would institute a new "Phoenix program," which would move certain unruly or violent youth to a specific facility. The reforms would also remove limits on the time youth can spend in the Redirect program, which provides aggressive behavioral programming for troubled youth without requiring that they be moved to a different facility. 

In a letter emailed Wednesday to the youth justice agency's executive director and its board members, Eileen Garcia, CEO of the advocacy group Texans Care for Children, recommended that the board hold off on its scheduled vote until there can be a public hearing on the proposals. Garcia said advocates want to make sure the reforms don't take a “Band-Aid” or "reactive" approach, but truly create meaningful change.

“Our position is not in opposition to Phoenix,” Garcia said in an interview. “We just don’t feel that we have enough answers at this time.”

But state Rep. Jerry Madden, R-Plano, the outgoing chairman of the House Corrections Committee, and state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, who chairs the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, said that rapid change is necessary to ensure that youth and staff are safe.

 

Madden said taking immediate steps to remove “troublemakers” from the general population in lockups is important to ensure the rest of the youth can take advantage of education and behavioral programs.

“We cannot have the youth control the facilities,” Madden said. “They have to understand that it is a state run facility run by state personnel.”

The proposed reforms follow recent reports highlighting an increase in violent incidents committed by youth toward other youth and toward staff at TJJD facilities. 

The Phoenix program would involve reopening an unused, 24-bed dorm within the already existing Mart facility so that more direct supervision could be provided for highly aggressive youth with a history of assault, TJJD spokesman Jim Hurley said. The facility would provide the same education and rehabilitation services as other lockups, but would be more secure by limiting youths' movement around campus and lowering the ratio of youth to staff. The dorm would not, however, be considered a lockdown or isolation facility, he said.

“It was determined that we needed a program to hold youth that had been aggressive and assaultive to youth and staff to greater accountability,” Hurley said. “This program is part of our response to improve the safety and security for our youth and for our staff.”

But Deborah Fowler, deputy director of the advocacy group Texas Appleseed, said she doesn't believe the new Phoenix program or the change to the Redirect program are solutions to the violence. She said the Phoenix program rules lack specifics about which youths would be eligible and when they could leave. And she said even if the Phoenix program is approved, she doubts it will live up to TJJD's promises, saying the agency has failed to adequately implement similar programs in the past. Instead, Fowler believes independent experts should be hired to assess the problems and suggest solutions.

"The overriding concern is that whatever this program looks like, simply moving kids from one facility to another is not going to solve the crisis," she said. 

Whitmire said while he respects the advocacy groups, he's disappointed in their position.

"I think they need to let the administration and the board do their job for the people of Texas,” he said. "...We’re trying to save these troublemakers. By going to Mart it might keep them from going to the adult system.”

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