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A juvenile detention center in Hidalgo County, Texas has overcrowding problems. This past Halloween, 110 juveniles were brought into the 96 bed detention center, despite being forbidden by the Texas Administrative Code to hold more than its designated capacity. 14 children were forced to sleep on the facility’s concrete floor – 2 did not have mattresses.
The original purpose of the juvenile justice system was to rehabilitate wayward children. Unlike adults, children are more vulnerable to outside influences. They do not have the same capability to differentiate right from wrong. They are more likely to fall victim to peer pressure. However, they are also very responsive to treatment and reform.
The Texas Family Code 51.01 states that the public purpose for the juvenile justice system is “to provide for the care, the protection, and the wholesome moral, mental, and physical development of children coming within its provisions,” as well as “to achieve the foregoing purposes in a family environment whenever possible, separating the child from the child’s parents only when necessary for the child’s welfare or in the interest of public safety and when a child is removed from the child’s family, to give the child the care that should be provided by parents.”
The Code also states that the Texas Juvenile System is to provide for the protection of the public and public safety, to promote the concept of punishment for criminal acts, and to protect the welfare of the community and to control the commission of unlawful acts by children.
Unfortunately, the majority of the system mostly ignores the care, protection, and welfare part of the Code and focuses on the protection of the public and punishment of children. I can understand that the community may not feel safe with a felon, albeit a child, out in public, but the children who would be released from detention would not pose threats to society. The majority of the juveniles in detention are not arrested for felonies!
“Juvenile offenders are placed on probation for nonviolent or misdemeanor offenses.”
These juveniles are usually in detention for violating the terms of their probation, which usually means they run away from home or fail to attend school. Instead of incarceration and punishment, they need counseling and a safer home environment.
Apparently, the District Court Judge disagrees with this view and thinks that continuing to take more juveniles to an overcrowded detention center is a better idea than “releasing the offenders back out in the community.” Judge Contreras has been informed by the detention center’s facility administrator of the concerns about overcrowding, yet he has not done anything significant to change this unfortunate situation. Placing troubled teens in a crowded facility with limited freedom and very little privacy exacerbates their stress levels, causing more trouble for themselves, other children, and staff. This negative behavior will most likely stay in their records, leading to longer detention periods or other misdemeanor or assault charges. The understaffed facilities will hardly be able to keep up with all of the juveniles that come in, which means less treatment for the children and less protection from themselves and others. This vicious cycle will continue, recidivism rates will increase, and the overcrowding problem at juvenile detention centers will get worse.
To make matters worse, court delays and problems with inadequate paperwork, as well a lack of zeal by the administration to get work done in a timely manner leads to children being detained in the facility for longer than necessary.
This situation is clearly in violation of the Administrative Code, the Family Code, and the purpose of the juvenile court system. The court must see that their inaction is posing more of a threat to society than the juveniles that are continuing to be detained.