The Texas Juvenile Justice Department is battling the image that its state lockups are under the control of its young offenders and that staff are afraid to go to work.

State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, painted that picture at a Feb. 8 Senate Finance Committee hearing that included testimony from the agency.

"We only send felons. Very violent felons," Whitmire said. "You don't go there as a truant. You don't go there as a car thief. You go there as an armed robber. And the problem is, literally, they lead all state agencies in [workers' compensation] claims, and it's because of assaults by students on employees."

In a wide-ranging interview with The Texas Tribune last week, Juvenile Justice Department Executive Director David Reilly said the hearing mischaracterized his agency.

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"We want to make sure [the committee has] the facts," Reilly said. "There's a lot of information out there now ... that is not factual, so we need to correct that."

With that in mind, the department last week sent a memorandum with its latest data to Senate Finance Committee members. As of Tuesday afternoon, the agency hadn't heard back from the committee.

Whitmire was unavailable for comment for this story.

High turnover, employee fear at state facilities

At the hearing, Whitmire said he regularly takes calls about riots at the state facilities and that employees at the Juvenile Justice Department are "afraid to go to work."

The agency's memorandum appeared to corroborate that sentiment, showing a turnover rate for fiscal year 2017 that is projected to approach 40 percent.

"There is fear," Reilly said. "People have to work longer hours because you may have people call in sick, so people have to work beyond their shift too much. And it interferes with their personal life — school, family, another job — so they leave, and that makes it worse. So you get into this cycle that's very hard to get out of."

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The agency has requested more than $13 million to recruit new employees and retain current ones. Reilly said a higher staff presence would help draw down incidents and staff assaults.

"The staff are going to feel safer because there's somebody else with them, or at least there's someone watching them on a monitor," Reilly said.

The department says it also is currently seeing a reduction in the kinds of incidents — such as fighting among youths or other disruptions — that lead to fearful employees and high turnover. The memorandum noted that after the department in August 2016 changed its school day to put fewer students into school buildings at the same time, the number of incidents decreased 3.7 percent and assaults by youths declined by 6.6 percent year over year.

The agency's human resources department said it couldn't verify Whitmire's assertion that it saw more workers' compensation claims than any other agency, but the memorandum said overall injuries and claims decreased in the past year, specifically noting that "injuries due to aggression" had declined 10.8 percent between fiscal years 2015 and 2016.

Questions about cost effectiveness

Several times during the hearing, Whitmire claimed the department's operations were inefficient. As an example, he compared the staffing at the Texas Juvenile Justice Department's central office to that of the agency's two predecessors, the Texas Juvenile Probation Commission and Texas Youth Commission. In 2007, when the two commissions managed about 5,000 youths, there were about 345 full-time employees. Now, the department oversees far fewer youths — about 1,300 — and the central office has about 250 employees.

The agency defended that figure in the memorandum and in an interview after the hearing, saying that the central office houses not only employees who perform crucial administrative functions but also many that provide support out in the field.

One question of Whitmire's that appeared to gain traction with the Senate Finance Committee was why so few kids were spread out across the state's five facilities.

"I don't think they're doing a very good job of running it safely and more cost effectively," he said. "Part of the problem is the location of their five, large, multi-acreage campuses."

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In response to Whitmire's concerns, Nelson formed a working group that in part will evaluate "the effectiveness of consolidating the state's secure correctional facilities for juvenile offenders." Nelson selected Whitmire to lead the group.

Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, a member of the workgroup, said it has not yet met but that in order for consolidation to be under consideration, "we'd have to show that it works better than the current system."

Reilly pushed back on consolidation: "When you think about going to larger facilities with more kids, it kind of just goes in the opposite direction of best practices in this country, which is away from large facilities."

Elizabeth Henneke, a juvenile justice advocate and defense lawyer, told the Tribune that the best help for youths would be to keep lockups small and closer to home.

Smaller facilities would allow "kids to be in smaller environments where they are not just of a herd but in fact are able to be treated like the kids that they are," Henneke said. "And being closer to home allows them to get the positive influences in their communities, so that when they transition back into their communities, they already have positive support."

Read more coverage of the Texas juvenile justice system:

  • Seventeen-year-olds can't vote, join the military or buy cigarettes or alcohol, but they're treated as adults in criminal cases in Texas. About 200 people rallied at the Capitol to change that.
  • More than a year after state lawmakers told it to stop incarcerating so many teenagers, the Texas Juvenile Justice Department diverted 52 juvenile offenders for rehabilitation instead of shipping them to state lockups.
  • Already facing calls to limit when teenagers are treated as adults in the criminal justice system, Texas lawmakers may also see legislation trying to keep preteens from being shunted into the juvenile justice system.
  • The Texas Juvenile Justice Department has developed a pilot program that places a handful of young offenders in on- and off-facility jobs if they have already earned a high school diploma or GED.
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