10 years’ worth of data on the number of physical and sexual assaults and pepper-spray incidents at youth correctional facilities across the state indicates that this serene atmosphere is often disrupted by violence among the youths.Several factbites from the story were downright stunning: "The rate of confirmed youth-on-youth physical assaults at state secure facilities grew to 54 assaults per 100 youths in 2011 from 17 assaults per 100 youths in 2007." And, "Staff assaults by youths have climbed to 37 confirmed assaults per 100 youths last year from a rate of 10 per 100 youths in 2007." Notably, "The data do show progress for the reform efforts, including reductions in violence perpetrated by staff and in all types of sexual assaults." (See various charts and data collected by the reporters in this interactive format.)
Overall, the rate of confirmed youth-on-youth assaults has more than tripled at the secure juvenile offender facilities statewide in the five years since lawmakers approved those reforms. Attacks on staff members have also increased.
The data do show progress for the reform efforts, including reductions in violence perpetrated by staff and in all types of sexual assaults. Cherie Townsend, executive director of the juvenile justice agency, acknowledged there is room for more work, but she said that reforms are making the facilities safer.
Advocates and experts, however, say the rise in youth-on-youth assaults and attacks on staff indicate there is still critical work to be done.
“It’s really disappointing,” said Deborah Fowler, deputy director of Texas Appleseed, a nonprofit organization that advocates juvenile justice reform. “The implementation has not been what we hoped for.”
In 2007, following reports that staff at what was then the Texas Youth Commission had sexually and physically abused youths in their custody, legislators passed laws intended to improve conditions at the lockups. They gave counties incentives to keep low-level offenders in their communities, where they could be close to treatment services and support systems. Only felony offenders who had failed at other programs would serve sentences at secure state facilities. Lawmakers also prohibited the incarceration of anyone older than 18 at the facilities.
The average daily population at the secure facilities has dropped to about 1,200 in 2011 from nearly 3,000 in 2007.
Grits suspects, though, that the massive decline in youth prisoners explains most of the increased violence rates, which are reported not as raw numbers but as assaults, etc., per 100 youths. That's because the pool of youth in 2007 were much less serious offenders, as a class, than the smaller group of more hard-core kids who go to youth prisons under the new regime. If the rate of youth on youth assaults tripled and the number of youth incarcerated declined by roughly 2/3, then there are roughly the same number of assaults today as in 2007, just concentrated among fewer prisoners.
In prison as in everywhere else in life, a small subset of offenders accounts for the majority of serious misbehavior, and those troublemakers are precisely the type of youth that still end up in TYC despite the expanded emphasis on diversion, probation, etc.. While youth violence went up, it's also true that the proportion of youth incarcerated for violent crimes as a percentage of the whole increased substantially over the same period. If the number of prey dwindles but you keep most of the predators, you'd expect the violence rate to go up because reducing the number of victims they have access to does not in and of itself reduce the violent tendencies of those who remain. That's not to excuse rising violence rates, but I think that's what's driving it. Possibly the staffing ratios and policies from the ancien regime weren't adequate for the types of offenders who now end up in TJJD lockups, and certainly the data call into question whether programming at the units is working to change youth behavior. Good reporting from the Trib.