The Texas Juvenile Justice Department is in the process of reviewing the histories of all youths in its detention centers to better assess security risks in the facilities.
The review was mandated by interim TJJD executive director Jay Kimbrough, who took on the new role this month. The review is of all youths in the system, starting with those with determinate, or fixed, sentences, and will look at a variety of data, including their reasons for being committed, length of sentence and whether or not they have a history of violence within the facility.
"You don't want 10 people who have committed murder in the same room," Kimbrough said.
Some advocates are worried that this blanket review will result in more youths being transferred to adult prisons. TJJD officials said that is not their aim.
“We are looking to identify the youths who continue to assault staff and other youths, and then we can take whatever additional actions we can take to improve the safety and security of our facilities,” said TJJD spokesman Jim Hurley.
Kimbrough said that in collecting the history of the youths with determinate, those who commit new assaults could be assessed more quickly so that TJJD can recommend to a court whether transferring that youth to an adult prison is appropriate.
"Now I can go faster because I have that history. I have that baseline knowledge and can use it in the existing system," Kimbrough said.
Advocates worry that more youths will be sent to prison, which could result in some not getting the chance to be rehabilitated, especially if they are referred to prison before they have aged out of the juvenile justice system.
“Certainly when judges and prosecutors decide to move forward with a determinate sentence rather than having them tried as adults, they decided they need a last chance at rehabilitation before moving into the adult system,” said Deborah Fowler, deputy director of Texas Appleseed. “The youth have not actually been given the last chance before being transferred to the adult system prosecutors and judges determined they were entitled to.”
But Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, said more transfers is exactly what is needed. Those who have reached the age of adulthood should be held accountable for their actions, he said, pointing to a case in which several youths were caught on camera holding a “summit meeting” to determine how their gangs would run the juvenile detention facility.
“I don't think that you can protect the other youth and our employees if you're going to tolerate repeat assaultive behavior,” Whitmire said. “I understand people will have a bad day, but you can't let gang leaders run the campus, so I suggest you identify them, get them off that campus, and if they want to act up, they can do it in the adult system where they can be held accountable.”
Kimbrough pointed out that the TJJD does not have the final say in whether a youth is transferred to prison — that decision is made by a judge. However, of 34 youths recommended by TJJD for transfer so far in 2012, a judge has agreed in 30 of those cases.
Kimbrough said that doesn't necessarily mean a judge's determination relies heavily on TJJD's recommendations, but rather that the agency is doing its job well in preparing evidence.
"That statistic means there's clear and substantial evidence. I don't expect [the judges] to be frivolous in any review," Kimbrough said. "I don't expect a rubber stamp."
So far this fiscal year, 50 youths have been referred to adult prison, out of 157 who met criteria for transfer. In fiscal 2011, a total of 60 youths were transferred to prison out of 206 eligible. Information on how many of these cases were youths that had aged out, and how many were recommended for prison based on behavior alone, was not immediately available through TJJD.
Michele Deitch, a criminal justice policy expert and senior lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin’s LBJ School of Public Affairs, said TJJD officials need to focus on why the violence is occurring, and a blanket review of individuals is not the best way to answer that question.
She said that security and disciplinary actions needed to be revamped at TJJD facilities, along with a better way to identify and classify those who present a risk inside the detention center, and better staff training.
“They need to be trained at appropriately dealing with boundary violations, keeping an emotional distance, how to prevent violence and how to talk a kid down,” Deitch said of staffers. “What kinds of skills are they given so these issues don't come up in the first place? Staff training is a huge issue.”
The security in place at TJJD has come under heightened scrutiny after three youths escaped from the McClennan County State Juvenile Correction Facility on July 14. Kimbrough said he asked for an unannounced, simultaneous inspection of all TJJD correctional facilities July 17, and a report on the findings of those inspections should be available this week or early next.
The inspections “are like assessing the youth. I need a baseline assessment of security," Kimbrough said.
Deitch also said focusing on youths with determinate sentences is not ideal because research shows that youths with indeterminate sentences have a higher rate of violence within the detention centers.
“It's easier to manage determinate-sentenced youth because they have longer sentences hanging over their heads,” Deitch said. “They're the ones that tend to want to participate in the programs and do a better job of it.”
Hurley said determinate-sentenced youths come to TJJD with "more serious issues," so starting the review with them was logical.
"We have to start somewhere," Hurley said.