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Study: When Placed in County Jails, Juveniles Are Often Isolated

A study of 41 local jails has found that juveniles awaiting trial often face hours of isolation daily or exposure to abuse by older inmates. County jails struggle to deal with a population they are not equipped or trained to handle.

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Few juveniles in Texas land in county jails, but when they do they are often isolated, in danger from older inmates and without access to educational and rehabilitative programs, according to a report released Wednesday.

The study comes after lawmakers in 2011 approved a measure that allows local juvenile justice boards to give judges the discretion to send youths who are certified to stand trial as adults to juvenile facilities, instead of county jails. Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin's LBJ School of Public Affairs surveyed jails to determine what kind of conditions juveniles face when they are incarcerated in facilities meant for adults. Jails, they discovered, are not suited to deal with the particular needs of youths.

“There’s no good answer,” said Michele Deitch, a professor at the LBJ School and expert on jail conditions, who led the study. “The jail administrators are between a rock and a hard place when it comes to managing these juveniles.” 

The report recommends that more juvenile boards and judges insist on housing juveniles at facilities that are equipped to care for them appropriately. If they don’t, the researchers suggest, lawmakers should approve stricter measures prohibiting juveniles in county jails in all but the most extreme circumstances. The Texas Commission on Jail Standards should also develop specific juvenile guidelines for those facilities that do house youths. Much like the problem itself, though, jail officials said the solution isn't as easy as a one-size-fits-all set of regulations.

“They just do not know what to do with these kids,” Deitch said of jail staff.

The UT researchers discovered far fewer youths in county jails than they expected. Each year from 2006 to 2010, about 200 youths were certified to stand trial as adults. But during the survey in October and November 2011, there were only 34 youths under the age of 17 in jails statewide. 

The conditions those youths were housed in varied greatly. The researchers surveyed 41 jails and found that in 30, the youths were housed separately from adult inmates. In the other 11, there was no special protection for the youths. Even in the facilities where youths were kept separated, they often came into contact with adult inmates at other times, including during showers and recreation and at meal times.

“National research indicates that juveniles in adult facilities are five times more likely to be victims of sexual abuse and rape than youth who are kept in the juvenile system,” the report states.

In an opinion released Monday, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott ruled that jails must keep juveniles in their custody separate from adults.

While that will probably decrease the safety risk for youths, Deitch said keeping youths separated also has an unfortunate side effect.

According to the report, in jails where youths are housed separately, the majority spend most of their time in isolation, getting only about an hour a day outside of their cells. 

“It amounts to solitary confinement for a kid for anywhere from six months to a year while they await trial,” Deitch said. “We’re sending them back out on the streets having deteriorated mentally.”

Only about half of the jails provided any type of educational programming for youths in their custody, according to the report, and just nine of the facilities offered classes for more than five hours each week.

“This lack of educational programming may violate both state compulsory education requirements and federal legislation,” the report stated. It also means the youths return to school far behind their peers academically, Deitch said.

The report also found that housing youths creates additional burden and expense for jails, because keeping them separate from the other inmates is difficult and the staff is not trained to handle juveniles.

In Harris County, home of the largest county lockup in Texas, youths are housed separately from adults, said Chief Deputy Mike Smith. Currently, eight juveniles are awaiting trial in the huge facility, and they present a major challenge.

“We think they would be better handled by juvenile authorities, who are trained to handle juveniles,” he said.

Housing the juveniles also means less space for adult offenders. The eight youths are in a 24-bed cellblock, which leaves 16 unused beds. Jail officials also bring in teachers to give the students lessons, an additional expense that the jail isn’t required to provide for adults. 

While it would be ideal if the youths were sent to a juvenile detention center, Smith said it would also help to have guidelines from the jail commission.

“Anytime you a have strong set of guidelines to adhere to, I think it makes it easier for jail administrators,” Smith said.

Judge W. Jeanne Meurer in Travis County last week made use of the 2011 law for the first time, sending a certified youth to juvenile detention to await trial.

“My philosophy is to the extent possible kids should remain in juvenile facilities,” she said. “But it’s not always possible.” 

Counties, she said, need discretion to deal with youths who are very violent. And not all Texas counties have juvenile detention facilities.

Because Texas counties are so different and each must deal with a wide array of inmates, Adan Muñoz, executive director of the jail standards commission, said developing guidelines for housing youths could be problematic. 

He said it makes sense to keep juveniles separate and judges should use that option when possible, but that some youth criminals are just as violent and manipulative as adults. Local officials, he said, can judge the youths and know their own capabilities to deal with the circumstances, and they should make the decision about what housing situation best fits the situation.

“If the trend is to keep juveniles separate from adults so they can try to rehabilitate and correct themselves,” he said, “then obviously they need to stay in a juvenile facility.”

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