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Law Could Set Stage for Juvenile Justice Reforms

A new law allowing Travis County to commit juvenile offenders to local detention facilities instead of large state institutions could set the stage for the next steps in reforming Texas’ juvenile justice system.

Detainees line up to leave the outdoor recreation area at the Travis County Juvenile Detention Center in Austin on June 24, 2013.

In Travis County, juvenile justice officials have decided that they can do a better job than the state in dealing with the most troubled local offenders, considering Texas’ history of scandal and violence in youth lockups.

“We will no longer commit kids to the state,” said Jeanne Meurer, a Travis County senior district judge. “We will take care of all of our kids.”

This year, legislators approved a law to allow the county to commit juvenile offenders to local detention facilities instead of sending them to large institutions operated by the Texas Juvenile Justice Department. If the Travis County model is successful, it could set the stage for the next steps in reforming the juvenile justice system — sharply reducing the size of the agency and the number of detention centers.

“Travis County’s experience doing this will tell us what’s possible,” said Michele Deitch, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin and an expert on jail conditions. 

The Texas juvenile justice system has been in transition since 2007, when it was rocked by reports that staff members had physically and sexually abused youths in its custody. Lawmakers overhauled the agency and changed state law so that only felony offenders would be sent to state lockups.

Youths with lesser violations were kept closer to home, and counties were awarded more state money to care for them. The state has since closed nine of its secure facilities, leaving six open. One more is scheduled to close in the next two years.

The overhaul left only the most troubled youths in state lockups. But it also left staff members at the remaining facilities without clear direction. Violence ensued. The rate of confirmed youth-on-youth assaults more than tripled at secure juvenile lockups statewide in the five years after lawmakers approved the overhaul.

Despite the troubles, Deitch said in a recent study that the agency is righting itself under a new executive director, Michael Griffiths. Officials, she said, are beginning to carry out new behavior management strategies that are reducing violence and improving treatment for youths.

“This system has a lot of really good, well-intentioned and reform-minded people working in it,” Deitch said.

The agency may follow in the footsteps of Travis County to move the system forward, she said. Since 2006, the county has reduced the number of youths it sends to state facilities to fewer than 20 per year from more than 100. In December, the county will stop sending any to state lockups, keeping them instead in local detention facilities close to their families and giving them intensive counseling services for problems like addiction and abuse.

Meurer said that to determine if its experiment is a success, the county will review the recidivism rates of youths who go through the local program.

“If we’re successful, then hopefully others will join in the process,” she said.

Even if many other counties follow the Travis County model, Meurer and Deitch said, Texas will still need a system to handle youths from counties that do not have resources to treat and house the most violent offenders. If there is more cooperation between state and local officials, they said, both the size of the state agency and its cost to taxpayers could drop.

Some advocates worry that local juvenile detention facilities do not have enough oversight to ensure youth safety. If the program expands, said Ana Yáñez-Correa, executive director of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, so must state oversight.

“Just because they end up in the community does not mean they end up in the right setting,” she said.

Griffiths, the state juvenile justice director, said that while he was pleased with improvements at state facilities, he was hopeful the Travis County model could set a path for the future.

“I may be a naïve county guy,” he said, “but I think it’s doable.”

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