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As Suicide Rates Increase, Youth Advocates Say Texas Juvenile Justice System Beyond Repair

Martin A. Martinez, Youth Justice Policy Advocate for Texas Appleseed.

The juvenile justice system in Texas is woefully understaffed and badly managed, and this is driving up suicide attempts among its underaged incarcerated population.

Federal investigators were scrutinizing the state’s Juvenile Department last year, but lingering staffing shortages and failed reforms are taking a toll on its adolescent population. Forty-five percent of children held in Texas’ juvenile lockups have been on suicide watch while personnel shortages force overwhelmed staff to detain children in their pens for long hours. In the last year, teens have been discovered pulling springs from their mattresses and cutting their necks. There are also reports of self-harm involving forcing pieces of metal into their urethras and other sensitive places. Some young inmates have even used objects to strangle themselves to get out of isolation.

“Youth will go to great—and at times, dangerous—lengths to avoid all-day lockdowns. For example, one youth timed the tying of a ligature around his neck to ensure staff performing routine door checks would pull him out of isolation before he was critically injured,” claims a 2022 report by the Sunset Advisory Commission, a Texas watchdog overseeing state agencies.

The state’s juvenile justice system reported more than 6,500 suicide alerts at its secure facilities in 2021, which amounts to an increase of about 40 percent since 2019. The division estimated its clinicians each spend roughly 30 hours per week solely on suicide risk assessments, leaving little to no time to provide
pivotal rehabilitative treatments that are intended to be the basis for the juvenile program. According to youth activists, suicide watches have not dropped despite multiple investigations.

“It’s happened recently in the past month because they’re so short staffed,” said Martin A. Martinez, Youth Justice Policy advocate for public interest justice center Texas Appleseed. “They’re still trying to make an unsustainable system work. The five state (juvenile holding) facilities are not an investment the state should be making anymore. They just won’t work, no matter how much money we put into them. They can’t rehabilitate kids, and honestly, they’re putting them in danger.”

Texas’ problem with juvenile justice goes back more than a decade. The Texas Juvenile Justice Department (TJJD) arose from a merger of the Texas Juvenile Probation Commission and the Texas Youth Commission after reports of sexual abuse and assault in juvenile facilities. The Texas Legislature consolidated the two entities into TJJD, but the new organization remains a victim of the same problems that plagued the agency preceding it. Staff turnover at the facilities are rampant. Many accommodations are remote, and they pay staff poorly.

The agency recently approved pay raises bringing juvenile facility workers’ salaries up from about $36,200 a year to $41,700, which is on par with that of adult prison employees. However, employees can easily find other similar-paying jobs in the current workers’ economy for less work and frustration. The agency also moved to reduce its juvenile population to relieve staff strain, but to little avail, according to The Sunset Commission, which claims countless staffing shakeups have perpetually broken the department.

“Historically, when scandal breaks, a leadership shakeup quickly follows involving new board chairs, executive directors, conservators, or other officials,” the commission reported. “With each upheaval comes fast-paced efforts to right past wrongs, improve facility safety, and transform the agency’s culture.”

However, nervous employees are hesitant to implement new management priorities knowing time-intensive reforms have a history of evaporating with inevitable new disruptions. The resulting frustration and “reform fatigue” intensifies until the next repugnant scandal dominates the spotlight, “prompting the cycle to start all over.”

Even as Sunset staff concluded a review into misconduct at state facilities in 2021, the U.S. Department of Justice was already intervening and forcing employees to adjust to yet another leadership overhaul that removed the board chair, executive director, and chief inspector general in early 2022.

Martinez said the kids are suffering throughout the chaos. Not only are they being locked in solitary confinement for lack of appropriate supervisors, but they’re having to serve longer sentences.

“Right now, I know that kids have been staying longer in these facilities because of staffing issues. They’re not able to receive the mental health services they need to be released. The crisis is unparalleled,” Martinez said. “Going forward, I don’t know how it’s going to be fixed without a plan to close the five state facilities and beef up support in the counties and local levels.”

Despite the system’s nagging ailments, Gov. Greg Abbott and the Republican-led Texas Legislature have done their part to strain it further. Both ordered a 5% cut to TJJD at the beginning of the pandemic. Abbott and the legislature also diverted federal coronavirus relief funds from TJJD to spend on other state expenses, particularly Abbott’s multibillion-dollar war on immigrants. Abbott’s Operation Lonestar border policy already enjoys a financial glut of more than $4 billion, despite a poor return on its investment.

Abbott claims the diversions had a net-zero impact on TJJD’s budget.

Adolescent advocates say the state should dissolve its five beleaguered facilities and adopt a smarter system that keeps children closer to their home and community. The state can accomplish more, they say, by adequately funding school therapists, counselors and preventive measures designed to identify brooding juvenile issues before the child ever lands in the state’s justice system. Young people who are already in the system, they say, can also benefit from home counseling and parole, as well as authentic, comprehensive treatment for mental and social illness.

But moving away from a system that banishes youth hundreds of miles away to be warehoused and traumatized in large lockups will be a tall order for a state like Texas with its incarceration rate of 840 per 100,000 people. Texas locks up a higher percentage of its people than any democracy on earth. Finding the political will to go in a different direction is not like Texas.

“If the current crisis doesn’t give them the political will, I’m not sure what will,” Martinez said.

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