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Texas reform advocates want to close all state-run youth lockups

Juvenile justice reform advocates want all the state's youth lockups closed after the department's latest sexual misconduct scandal.

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With a conviction and multiple arrests stemming from recent sexual misconduct cases at a Texas lockup for minors, juvenile justice reform advocates are calling for state leadership to close all state-run secure facilities for youths.

On Thursday, advocates from multiple reform groups sent a letter to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Joe Straus asking them to create a joint legislative committee to evaluate the Texas Juvenile Justice Department and shut down the state’s five lockups. The call comes after a department memo obtained by The Dallas Morning News highlighted recent allegations of sexual misconduct at the Gainesville State School.

“Texas taxpayers are currently footing the bill for a costly, defective model that does not promote public safety and is inhumane,” the advocates wrote in the letter. “There is only one solution: the remaining state secure facilities must be closed.”

The letter was cosigned by directors of Texas Appleseed, Texans Care for Children, the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition and the American Civil Liberties Union. Spokesmen for Patrick and Straus did not respond to emails Thursday evening.

The juvenile justice department declined to comment on the letter, but a Wednesday memo from the department’s executive director to state leadership addressed the issue.

The current scandal surrounds the conviction of one male guard, Samuel Wright, and the arrest of three women at the facility in Gainesville, a rural area about 75 miles north of Dallas. Wright was sentenced to 10 years in prison this July for improper sexual activity with a youth in custody, according to the memo. The women were arrested within the past three months on allegations of having sexual relationships with committed minors.

A fourth female guard was investigated on similar allegations, but a grand jury declined to indict her. The Wednesday memo also highlighted a 2016 case where a psychologist at the lockup was suspended after being found to have emailed pornography to his work computer so he could encourage a minor to masturbate in front of him.

“As much as we loathe that these events happened at all, I believe the facts of these cases show that oversight mechanisms put in place by legislative reforms of the past decade are working,” the department’s executive director, David Reilly, wrote in the memo. “The perpetrators were caught and prosecuted because dedicated staff helped flag this improper activity and document the events. In other cases, youth accessed the Incident Reporting Center (IRC) hotline, allowing our criminal investigators to build a case.”

The state’s juvenile justice system has repeatedly been embroiled in sexual and physical abuse scandals that span back to the 1970s, according to the advocates' letter. In 2007, when the media reported system-wide abuse, multiple reforms were enacted by the Legislature and county judges opted out of committing minors to state custody, causing populations at state-run correctional facilities for youth to plummet, according to a 2015 report on juvenile justice reforms.

The number of state youth lockups has dwindled from 12 to 5 since then, according to The Dallas Morning News, and now the reform advocates want to close the rest, saying the state lockups are an “outmoded and ineffective model of youth rehabilitation.”

In the department memo, Reilly points to new efforts to prevent sexual abuse, including a stronger “never alone” policy that, starting Dec. 1, will require that multiple people be present while transporting youths in custody or have guards wear body cameras if that’s not feasible. The department is also going to reinstate monthly overtime pay, which had been stopped last year amid budget cuts.

The department has correlated the issues of low pay and morale and high stress and turnover with the abuse in the department. Keeping employees has been a reported struggle — the Gainesville facility had a turnover rate last fiscal year of more than 50 percent, the memo said.

“Let me be clear: low pay, high turnover, job stress and staffing shortages do not cause employees to become more sexually deviant,” wrote Reilly, reaffirming the agency's zero-tolerance policy on abuse. “However, low staffing levels create opportunities for misconduct that could otherwise be prevented.”

Texas Appleseed's Deborah Fowler, an author of the advocacy letter, said in response to the department’s memo that attempting to fix the facilities is futile.

“We need to focus on continuing the reforms that started in 2007 and have since stalled by closing the remaining facilities and putting hard earned taxpayer dollars into treatment proven to work closer to home,” she said.

Disclosure: Texas Appleseed has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors is available here.

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