Egregious Constitutional Violations in Texas Youth Facilities Lead to Advocacy Groups Seeking Federal Help

Texas Appleseed and Disability Rights Texas have filed a complaint with the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, citing “grievous violations of children’s constitutional rights” regarding the five state secure facilities run by the Texas Juvenile Justice Department (TJJD). Violations include both sexual assault and gang violence due to persistent staffing issues. Unfortunately, the latest criticism is nothing new. TJJD has faced criticism in the past from reform advocates, the state legislature, and Governor Greg Abbott. This includes a 2010 letter signed by multiple organizations highlighting similar issues within the complaint.

Since media reports surfaced highlighting physical and sexual abuse at state run facilities in 2007, Texas has worked towards reforming its juvenile justice system.  Reform has included closing state secure facilities, moving money into the probation budget, and reducing the number of children housed in the state’s remaining facilities – yet it failed to address the unsafe conditions in the remaining facilities. Now, these remaining five TJJD state secure facilities continue to be plagued with conditions which violate federal Constitutional standards as well as jeopardize the health, safety, and rehabilitation of young people.

The complaint, using reports from the Office of the Independent Ombudsman (OIO), open   records requests to TJJD and the Office of the Inspector General (OIG), and direct communication with TJJD-involved young people and families, states the following issues persist:

  • Inability to ensure safety of young people (ex. staff turnover, reports of safety issues, and excessive restraints);
  • Abuse, including sexual victimization, within the facilities (sex abuse, inappropriate use of force, etc.);
  • Inadequate mental health care; and
  • Over-reliance on short-term security and lack of programming for youth in security (segregation).

Findings from the complaint include staffing shortages among all facilities, inadequate staffing and supervisor driven chaos, higher instances of sexual victimization among Texas youth, unnecessary and excessive force, and inadequate mental health care among the children. Each contribute to negative facility outcomes that run counter to the rehabilitation goal of Texas’ juvenile justice system. Brett Merfish, Director of Youth Justice at Texas Appleseed said it best, “The state facilities are not just failing the youth in them, they are hurting them [.]”

The current director, TJJD’s eighth director since 2007, has outlined a plan called the “Texas Model” to be introduced in this legislative session to address the ongoing problems. However, a lower staff-to-youth ratio is needed, and the plan fails to address the issues inherent to the facilities which are highlighted in the complaint.

The complaint concludes pointing out concerns with the ability to have outside monitoring since facilities have been closed due to COVID-19 and a plea for further investigation into the well documented, ongoing Constitutional violations.

The complaint can be found here.

For more information see the Disability Rights TX’s Press Release and additional coverage of the story at the Texas Tribune.

Weekly Round Up (November 20, 2019)

STATE WOULD EXPAND JUVENILE COURTS, HALLS TO 18- AND 19- YEAR-OLDS UNDER PROPOSAL 

California would expand its juvenile-justice system to include 18- and 19-year-olds under a proposal from the state’s probation chiefs, a move they said would allow a more restorative approach for those teenagers but one expert warned could be difficult to implement.

Read more… 

JUVENILE JUSTICE GROUPS SAY FELONY MURDER CHARGES HARM CHILDREN, YOUNG ADULTS

Felony murder is not your average murder. Juvenile justice advocates call felony murder laws arcane and say they unfairly harm children and young adults. Prosecutors can charge them with felony murder even if they didn’t kill anyone or intend to do so. What’s required is the intent to commit a felony — like burglary, arson or rape — and that someone dies during the process.

Everyone involved in that underlying felony can be held responsible for the death. In some cases, a person who wasn’t even present when the death occurred may face a felony murder charge too. It’s a controversial provision that has been around for hundreds of years. It got its start in England, which abolished the rule in the 1950s. Other countries followed suit.

Read more… 

JDAI SHIFTS FOCUS TO OVERHAULING PROBATION, INCREASING DIVERSION  

When the Annie E. Casey Foundation launched the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI) in the tough-on-crime era of the early 1990s, politicians were labeling teenage offenders “superpredators” and states were passing laws making it easier to prosecute kids as adults. Rates of juvenile detention were skyrocketing.

Nearly 30 years later, JDAI’s radical-for-its-time proposition that locking youth up neither improves their behavior nor protects public safety has been borne out.

Average daily juvenile detention populations have been halved in the more than 300 counties across 40 states and Washington, D.C., that have adopted JDAI reforms. Detention admissions are down 57%. In most localities, crime rates have continued to decline.

Read more… 

University of Houston’s Holiday Candy and Book Drive for the Harris County Juvenile Detention Center

The University of Houston’s Association of Women in Law, the Center for Children, Law, and Policy, and the Criminal Law Association are teaming up to collect books and small wrapped candy on behalf of the Harris County Juvenile Detention Center.

ALL books and ALL (individually wrapped) candy are helpful and welcomed! Every contribution means one more child with something to look forward to during the holidays.

The book drive/ candy drop-off is in the commons and will be available from Friday, November 15th until Friday, December 13th.

If you are interested in donating to the drive or if you have any questions, please feel free to email kmsheeha@central.uh.edu!