Texas’ juvenile detention system has shut down and will no longer accept new children because they are ‘bleeding’ staff, and officials fear they won’t be able to ensure the safety of nearly 600 young people already in their care.
According to a letter from the Texas Juvenile Justice Department, published in the Texas Tribune on Wednesday, the state’s five youth detention centers were implementing emergency protocols “as the staffing levels at each secure facility turn darker.”
“The current risk is that the current staffing problem at secure facilities will lead to an inability to provide even basic supervision to young people locked in their rooms,” Shandra Carter, the agency’s acting director, wrote to officials. of juvenile probation statewide last week. “This could result in a significantly impaired ability to intervene in the increasing suicidal behaviors already seen by young people struggling with the isolating impact of confinement in the operating room.”
The agency has 331 vacancies for juvenile corrections officers and only 391 officers available to cover its facilities, an agency spokesperson said Thursday.
Juveniles sentenced to serve sentences in a TJJD facility will remain in local detention facilities, many of which have their own shortage of beds. In his letter, Carter said 130 minors were waiting in county facilities before admission was halted.
Carter said the agency is trying to restart admissions as soon as possible by moving people to different units, stopping intensive intervention programs for those who have committed violent crimes and examining whether young people might be eligible for admission. the Liberation.
Juvenile prisons in Texas have long been plagued with physical and sexual abuse and dangerous environments for the youths held there. In October, the US Department of Justice announced it was investigating whether the agency provided “reasonable protection against physical and sexual abuse by staff and other residents, excessive use of chemical restraints and excessive use of seclusion”.
Carter was named head of the agency by the Texas Juvenile Justice Board in April when former director Camille Cain resigned without notice after four years at the helm. Hours before Cain’s departure was made public, Governor Greg Abbott announced he was taking money from his struggling agency to continue funding Operation Lone Star, his multi-billion border security operation. of dollars.
Cain, who previously worked for Abbott, has not publicly discussed his reasons for leaving. Records obtained by the Tribune show Cain requested $31,225,360 in coronavirus relief funds from Abbott’s office in April, weeks before the governor took the same amount from his agency.
In a statement, TJJD said Thursday that the funds transferred out of their hands by Abbott had a “net zero” budget impact. A spokesperson said the agency used federal coronavirus relief funds to pay salaries that would typically come from their general revenue.
“Once these federal dollar expenditures were made, we returned the same amount of funds from our general revenue,” TJJD spokeswoman Barbara Kessler said in the statement.
On Thursday afternoon, an Abbott spokesperson said the transfer of funds only acted as a placeholder and “had no impact on the agency’s operating budget.”
“The safety and security of TJJD staff and youth is a top priority for Governor Abbott,” spokeswoman Renae Eze said in a statement. they stay safe and secure.”
On Friday, the agency said it was making permanent an emergency 15% pay rise for officers and other staff directly involved with young people, which temporarily took effect in April. The starting salary for a juvenile corrections officer will increase from $36,238 to $41,700, Kessler said. The funds will come from savings from numerous agency vacancies and the cancellation of planned spending, such as a new reintegration enrichment program to help children succeed after detention.
A month before Abbott announced he was moving money out of TJJD to fund Operation Lone Star, Carter, then TJJD’s deputy executive director for state services, told an advisory board that youth detentions were overcapacity in terms of staff-to-youth ratio.
Only one facility was accepting new inmates, she said, according to the minutes of the meeting. Others were often unable to provide educational or therapeutic programs, and they were regularly confined due to a lack of staff. In December, she says, staff assessed young people for suicide issues 1,000 times.
In recent years, counties and cities in Texas have sent fewer and fewer minors to the TJJD, instead holding them closer to home or sentencing them to probation. As of May, fewer than 600 youths were being held in secure TJJD facilities, according to a state report, a number that has dropped significantly over the past decade.
For advocates who have pushed to close state-run youth prisons, the staffing crisis only underscores the need for a new approach to juvenile justice. Advocates have long called on counties to run the youth justice system and hope the ongoing staffing crisis at a time when there are fewer youths in custody will push the state to rethink the system when the agency does. subject to legislative review next year.
“We already had a backlog of services…they didn’t have enough people to provide the therapy [youth] needed,” said Brett Merfish, director of youth justice at Texas Appleseed. “How extreme must it be to say, ‘OK, we need to do something different’?”
Reference: Letter from TJJD Director Shandra Carter on the agency’s halt to new admissions (177.3 KB)
This document is available at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/07/07/texas-juvenile-justice-staffing/
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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texatribune.org/2022/07/07/texas-juvenile-justice-staffing/.
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