In the criminal justice reform community, Texas has long been considered the “how to” leader for other red states looking to implement smart-on-crime reforms. This includes measures that save taxpayer dollars, protect public safety and enhance fairness for people wrapped up in the justice system. Yet in recent weeks, a correctional travesty has come to light in the Lone Star State’s juvenile justice system that demands immediate action.

According to recent reports, juveniles in the five Texas Juvenile Justice Department, or TJJD, detention facilities are facing inhumane conditions. Some of the most dire stories tell of juveniles locked for 23 hours in often windowless cells using water bottles to go to the bathroom. Many juveniles are hurting themselves and being placed on suicide watch.

The TJJD’s interim executive director, Shandra Carter, places the blame for most of these conditions on staffing shortages spurred by funding cuts during COVID-19 and resultant high staff turnover, which has reached 70 percent among detention officers.

These horrors are not only impacting the safety of the incarcerated, they also negatively impact TJJD employees, with teachers and caseworkers taking on security roles for which they likely are not suited or trained.

Aside from the immediate need to address the physical safety of the incarcerated juveniles and TJJD staff, there are troublesome long-term implications of such a badly run juvenile detention system.

In late June, Carter sent an email to the TJJD juvenile probation chiefs explaining the system would be “temporarily halting intake of youth committed” due to already existing strains with the current population. But the problem cannot simply be fixed by increasing capacity.

Fortunately for Texas lawmakers, there are a number of ways to fix these problems outside of simply increasing funding for the system.

In 2007, Texas’ adult prison system reached 170,000 inmates. Faced with a choice of either spending another $2 billion for 17,000 new prison beds or finding a way to reduce incarceration rates safely, lawmakers chose the latter, implementing bipartisan reforms such as treatment and diversion. This led to the closure of eight adult prisons while maintaining the same standard of public safety.

Texans have an opportunity to do the same for the juvenile system. Acting in this moment could enhance safety for the young people in the TJJD, for taxpayers and for the public at large. Among other initiatives, successful reforms in other states include employing police-led deflection or diversion for certain offenses; limiting transfer from juvenile court to adult court; raising the minimum age of court jurisdiction; limiting the use of pre-adjudication detention; and expanding services and other alternatives to arrest.

When it comes to juveniles, who are shown to reoffend at far higher rates than adults following their release from a sentence, it is even more critical to ensure that the state is not overincarcerating and creating habitual offenders instead of rehabilitating minors who made a mistake.

The situation at the TJJD will have to be addressed in a timely manner, so legislators should start looking at ways to ensure humane treatment of juveniles in state custody. If everything is truly bigger in Texas, their heart for their youth should be, too.

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