Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Juvenile justice system bashed and defended

Most of the fireworks on juvenile justice at the House Corrections Committee hearing will occur later this afternoon after I'm gone, but this morning I heard two speakers on the subject who gave a preview of the types of complaints swirling about Texas' juvenile justice system these days, and the state's initial response.

State Rep. Harvey Hildebran

The number of "complaints, criticisms and alarming incidents" at Texas Youth Commission facilities have been escalating, he said, especially in the last few months. TYC is underfunded, can't attract or retain staff. It's not just a money problem, though, but a "policy and procedures" problem, he said.

"What is the definition of 'restraint'?" he asked. There is "confusion among staff," he said, "about what they can and can't do."

He's concerned that juveniles are "getting privileges but aren't earning them." Wants TYC to reduce the population of the facility in San Saba, and to segregate older and younger juveniles.

Need a "new definition of child abuse, or maybe two definitions," he said. When a staffer deals roughly with a juvenile in TYC they could be charged with child abuse following the statute.

Dwight Harris, Executive Director, Texas Youth Commission

TYC has 4,358 beds, 218 halfway houses, and > 400 contract beds. That total number has roughly tripled in recent years after the Legislature expanded the department. Most new facilities were built in rural areas. In new facilities like the ones in Marlin and San Saba, inmates don't see the light of day inside the facility, sleeping and living areas are "very small," recreation and educational space is "very very limited." "Security rooms" in the facility are similar to ad seg rooms in the adult population.

He gave an interesting economic analysis on the uncertain labor basis for Texas juvenile facilities: Many communities where facilities were built were economically disadvantaged at the time, but the economy is improving so they're having trouble finding staff in these rural towns, and even more difficulty attracting people to move to those small towns on TYC's wages.

He gave members a written report on officer recruitment and retention.

Rep. Scott Hochberg asked how employee issues relate to the allegations of abuse and neglect discussed by Rep. Hildebran. Harris replied, when you don't have enough beds to hold kids accountable, he'll "push out kids who are the best behaved" and be left with the "worst ofthe worst." Staffing ratios are 1-24, 1-27 when its crowded. The relationships aren't there. So they're going to be involved in more restraints. Most of these accusations are excessive force cases. Guards are working too much overtime, back to back shifts, and sometimes they make mistakes.

Advocacy groups have really clamored and said "this is an abusive agency." We tried to "tweak" that policy, but then there was some confusion about when could you put your hands on kids. The intent was never that guards couldn't control juvenile inmates. "You can do what you must do to take care of the situation." Hochberg asked if there's a formal policy. Harris replied yes, if you have a "reasonable belief of imminent threat harm to yourself or others, guards can protect themselves."

When Rita forced them to move kids to other already crowded facilities, it increased the violence and problems at the seriously overcrowded units. Unlike the state prisons which use county jails for overflow, Harris said there is no source for TYC overflow beds except "contract care," and there are too few private sector programs to take up the slack.

UPDATE: The Houston Chronicle today (3-22) covered overcrowding at Texas juvenile detention facilities.


Anonymous said...

Hi Scott. Good to know you're still out there watching. There's a lot more to find out about this agency.

Anonymous said...

My son is an inmate and was beaten by guards for not getting inthe breakfast line. He was trying to avoid a fight with another inmate and informed the guard of this, it didn't matter they still beat him !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!1

Anonymous said...

Less than 1 percent of students pass math test
By Sidney Levesque /
August 5, 2006
The state says youths detained in Abilene for stealing cars or selling drugs are receiving an unacceptable education. For the second year, Abilene's Juvenile Detention Center received the state's lowest academic rating this week. Less than 1 percent of the students passed the math portion of the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills test. The state rates schools exemplary, recognized, acceptable and unacceptable mostly based on the TAKS test. The test is first administered in the third grade.

The education director for Abilene's Juvenile Detention Center said the facility should not receive any rating because the students are often behind in school when they arrive, and they usually spend a short amount of time there. Some youths stay two weeks. Others are there as long as a year. ''It's exceptionally unfair to rate our type of facility,'' said Arlieta Jones, education director. Most juvenile detention centers around Texas received an acceptable rating this year under the state's alternative accountability system. Standards are different from the regular accountability system because alternative centers serve students at-risk of dropping out of school.
Abilene's detention center, though, is rated under the regular accountability system because it does not meet two criteria to be an alternative campus: teachers who are certified in all areas, and a certified administrator.
The detention center has two teachers and two teacher's aides, all employed by Taylor County. They lack certifications in math and science, Jones said. She lacks mid-management certification, something a principal would have, she said. She is a certified teacher. The detention center is equipped to serve about 40 youths ages 10 to 17 from area counties, but most are from the Abilene Independent School District. They receive at least four hours a day of instruction, which takes place year-round. The center, 889 S. 25th St., is considered an AISD campus because it is in the district's boundaries. TAKS scores from the detained students are factored into the district's overall rating. AISD helped the detention center work on an improvement plan as required by the state after last year's unacceptable rating. Jones said another plan will be needed because of this year's poor rating. She said the teachers at the detention center work hard to motivate students to take school seriously. Most students receive one-on-one instruction, although some group lessons are given.
Students take science, but without labs. Jones said they cannot be given knives or other sharp objects. Considering the circumstances, Jones said she was proud that 71 percent of the students passed the reading or English TAKS tests this year. Two students returned to Abilene High School to graduate in May and six earned their GED.

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