Several Texas state senators on Tuesday expressed support for the closure of at least some of the state’s remaining youth lockups.

The lawmakers' comments, made at a Senate Finance Committee hearing, came as the Texas Juvenile Justice Department is entangled in a sexual abuse scandal that has led to a 10-year prison sentence for one guard and the arrest of three women at the Gainesville State School.

The senators sharply criticized the department’s director, who said in the hearing that his department is so understaffed that security cameras aren’t constantly monitored and youth are sometimes left alone with guards.

State Sen. John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat who has long been critical of the department, said the only reason the department hasn’t completely blown up yet is because the staff let the committed, often violent youth run the five remote lockups still in use throughout the state.

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“We’re sitting on a powder keg,” said Whitmire, the Senate Criminal Justice Committee chairman. “In my judgment, it is the worst performing agency by any measure.”

At the Gainesville facility north of Dallas, several guards have faced criminal prosecution this year for allegedly having sexual relationships with juveniles. David Reilly, the department’s executive director, said the misconduct stems from staffing shortages. The department has a high turnover rate because staffers fear for their safety and are overworked, he said.

“We don’t have an adequate staff presence to ensure they are never alone with our youth,” he told the committee.

The recent incidents happened in transport vans taking youth from the infirmary on the other side of the campus, he said. The department recently provided body cameras for guards to wear when alone with the committed youth.

In 2007, a similar abuse scandal rocked the juvenile justice agency, prompting the Legislature to implement several reforms and more county judges to opt out of committing youth to state-run facilities. In a decade, the number of lockups dropped and the number of youth in state custody plummeted from around 5,000 to more than 1,000, according to Legislative Budget Board reports.

State Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, said that though the population is smaller, the problems are almost identical to those from 10 years ago.

“We ought to just completely do away with the system we have in place and send juveniles to their probation departments back home, except maybe for the worst of the worst,” he said. “At some point, we have to take drastic action.”

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The finance committee’s chairwoman, Republican Jane Nelson of Flower Mound, quickly replied.

“I think we’re at that point.”

State Sens. Joan Huffman and Paul Bettencourt, both Houston Republicans, also said the state should look into closing some of the five facilities. Huffman added that there will always be a need for some secure facility for dangerous youth.

“It’s hard to believe, but young people can commit vicious crimes that do horrible things to people, and our citizens expect to be protected,” she said.

Whitmire said after the hearing that before closing any prisons, a new plan is needed. Last week, four juvenile justice reform advocacy groups wrote a letter to state leaders asking the state to create a timeline for closing the large, remote lockups and focus on getting youth into smaller facilities closer to home.

Reilly said proposing to close only some of the lockups and moving youth into the remaining ones, as Bettencourt suggested in the hearing, would counter what experts want — more, smaller facilities.

“We’d be going totally in the opposite direction of that,” he said.

Reilly said that because the department led the charge in getting criminal charges filed in the recent scandal, as opposed to the media in 2007, reforms are working. The investigative division of the department, which collects and investigates abuse complaints, was enacted 10 years ago by the Legislature.

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But Whitmire said prosecution isn’t enough.

“It's got to be prevented,” he yelled. “It’s gotta be seen on your cameras… you can’t have this population unsupervised for a minute.”

Reilly also confirmed Whitmire's claim that youth are coming home with new tattoos, which the senator said indicated there are extended periods of time without employee supervision of youth. 

Whitmire suggested at the hearing that Texas Rangers could be asked to conduct surprise visits to the five lockups and privately interview staff and youth to learn about what goes on. After the hearing, he said he was going to talk to Gov. Greg Abbott about the issue, which he added should be a “top priority” for state leadership.

“This agency needs a total shakeup top to bottom,” he said. “We’ve got to do whatever it takes.”

Read related Tribune coverage:

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

  • Two more guards at a Texas lockup for minors were arrested after allegedly abusing youths in custody, according to the Texas Juvenile Justice Department. [Full story]

  • The revised Texas House sexual harassment policy includes language that strengthens protections against retaliation and provides specific steps to report inappropriate behavior. It comes about two weeks after The Texas Tribune detailed flaws in the former policy that often left victims to fend for themselves. [Full story]

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