The Texas Juvenile Justice Department, having undergone a massive leadership shake-up after recent scandals of physical and sexual abuse, wants to reduce the already shrinking population of youth kept in state-run lockups and funnel more resources into county facilities.
The agency’s executive director, Camille Cain, sent short-term and long-term plans Friday morning to Republican Gov. Greg Abbott. Her proposals included several immediate measures as well as ideas that would require legislative action. Abbott had requested a proposal from Cain to improve the agency when she took the job in January as part of a turnover in leadership largely led by the governor.
Cain said she worked with employees from all ranks within the department as well as local juvenile justice leaders and advocates in creating the plan.
“As I developed the plan I am submitting to you today, I worked hard to incorporate those perspectives as I focused on the twin goals of public safety and effective rehabilitation,” Cain said in her letter to Abbott.
Abbott praised the plan on Twitter, saying it "is a positive step forward in improving our juvenile justice system."
The agency has been embroiled in its most recent scandal since November, when an agency memo obtained by The Dallas Morning News revealed that guards at one of the five state-run lockups were allegedly having sex with juvenile detainees. One officer was convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison, and three others had been arrested. Since then, at least six other department employees have been arrested or charged on suspicion of official oppression.
Four of the arrests derived from a joint investigation by the department and the Texas Rangers, who were asked by Abbott to investigate misconduct inside the agency.
Cain said some of her plans are already working, noting that the population at state-run youth lockups is at an all-time low of 879 thanks to more frequent reviews to ensure the release of qualified youth. In December, there were a little over 1,000 juveniles at state facilities, and that number has steadily dwindled from nearly 5,000 in 2005. The department is also reviewing policies on minimum lengths of stay and moving more detainees to less secure contract facilities, according to the submitted plan.
Cain also touted decreases in violent incidents in the facilities and noted how the department's use of physical restraints and pepper spray have declined since her tenure began.
The department plans to use money from Abbott to add body cameras to all employees who interact with juveniles by the end of the year, and Cain said the agency is working hard to improve retention of correctional officers — an area where the agency suffers. Last fiscal year, the turnover rate for officers was more than 50 percent, meaning half the guards left, according to agency reports. And Cain’s proposal shows that the number of juvenile correctional officers has continued to drop from 1,020 in December to 975 in May.
The short-term goals detail improving screening procedures for potential officers and providing more frequent training. The agency also sometimes uses overtime without notice and rejects leave requests due to short staffing, and the plan mentions an objective method for dealing with vacation requests to help employees and improve retention.
After the recent news of abuse at the state-run lockups, advocates for juvenile justice reform called for the closure of all state-run lockups, claiming the current system is inhumane. They cited similar scandals in the last decade at the agency and asked state leaders to keep detained children closer to home and focus more on rehabilitation.
Deborah Fowler, executive director of Texas Appleseed and one of those advocates, said Friday afternoon that there was a lot of good news in the plan — including the reduction in population and uses of force — but policymakers need to keep their focus on an eventual closure of all state-run facilities.
“Our concern with the facilities of course is we always see this kind of response whenever there is scrutiny that follows whatever the latest scandal is in the secure TJJD facilities,” she said, referring to legislative reforms and a re-creation of the agency which houses juvenile detainees after a 2007 sexual abuse scandal rocked state government.
Fowler said she understands why the agency wouldn’t recommend the closure of its own facilities, but that legislators should keep their eyes on that goal and shift the money for state facilities into county budgets for local juvenile probation departments.
In the agency’s long-term plans, Cain emphasizes that a reduction in population is “a critical element of reform.” The plan mentions keeping youth closer to their hometowns and ensuring county detention facilities have the capacity and resources to keep up with a larger population. But it also mentions a need to house violent youth who couldn’t appropriately be placed in county lockups.
“It is clear that the approach of TJJD must shift from a primary focus on the small number of youth in our institutions to a fuller focus on the system as a whole, with local probation departments having a significant voice and TJJD taking on a more supportive role,” Cain concluded.
Disclosure: Texas Appleseed has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.